Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

Did Baltimore Cops ‘Conspire’ To Suppress Evidence, Leading to a Wrongful Murder Conviction?

Attorneys for a man exonerated in a Baltimore murder say detectives suppressed exculpatory evidence and that the police’s homicide unit has a pattern and practice of similar conduct in decades of cases.

Jerome Johnson embraces attorney Nancy Forster in July 2018. Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo courtesy of Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.

Jerome L. Johnson was exonerated and released from prison in July 2018 after serving nearly 30 years for a 1988 murder in Baltimore, a crime of which he had long maintained his innocence.

According to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on March 6, Johnson alleges that homicide detectives from the Baltimore Police Department suppressed exculpatory evidence and pressured the prosecution’s star witness into giving false testimony, “unconstitutional conduct” that was “sanctioned” by the department’s “customs, policies, and practices.” The lawsuit cites a dozen other cases to support its claim that the homicide unit has a “sufficiently widespread” and “longstanding pattern and practice of suppressing exculpatory and impeachment evidence.”

In the early morning hours of July 14, 1988, four men chased Aaron Taylor from a Northwest Baltimore basketball court to a bar called the Nite Owl. One man in the group shot Taylor to death. A 15-year-old girl known only as L.S. positively identified Alvin Hill as the killer, not Johnson. The interview with L.S. was written in a police report that was approved by a supervisor, Detective Kevin Davis. But according to Johnson’s lawsuit, the report was never turned over to the state’s attorney’s office.

In an interview with the detectives after his arrest, Johnson asserted his innocence and provided them with the name of a witness who could account for his whereabouts at the time of Taylor’s murder. He also told them that he had a conversation with an officer working that night who could corroborate other aspects of his account. But the homicide detectives on the case—Davis, Frank Barlow, Daniel Boone, and Gerald Goldstein—“never investigated the truthfulness” of Johnson’s alibi or interviewed the officer, according to Johnson’s lawsuit.

Instead, Johnson claims in his lawsuit, the four detectives “wrongly decided” that he killed Taylor, “conspired to suppress” the July 14 interview with L.S. as well as “other exculpatory and impeachment evidence,” and then “selectively disclosed evidence that conformed to their narrative” that Johnson was guilty. “We are conducting our due diligence concerning the allegations in the lawsuit,” Andre Davis, Baltimore’s city solicitor and Baltimore Police legal counsel, told The Appeal.

In 1989, Johnson was tried and convicted of murder and was sentenced to life plus 20 years. In 2011, he uncovered the police report in which L.S. identified Hill as Taylor’s killer, but seven years would pass before the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office exonerated him. During his time in prison, Johnson suffered life-threatening injuries at the hands of other prisoners, missed the funerals of his father and mother, and was unable to raise his only child.

“I spent so much of my life in prison for something I didn’t do,” Johnson said in a statement after the lawsuit was filed. “We can’t go back and change the past, but I hope that there is justice at the end of this road.”

A history of misconduct

Johnson’s claims of misconduct by homicide detectives are not unusual in Baltimore, where numerous murder convictions have been overturned, most often because police and prosecutors suppressed exculpatory or impeachment evidence.

“The Baltimore Police Department has a demonstrated history of misconduct and violating people’s constitutional rights,” Kobie A. Flowers, one of Johnson’s attorneys, said in a phone interview. “Those people tend to be poor people and people of color. We are suing in Jerome Johnson’s case, but there are ongoing criminal investigations. Just this month we’ve got the indictment of [former sergeant] Keith Gladstone, in connection with the federal investigation into the Gun Trace Task Force. After the death of Freddie Gray, BPD was placed under a consent decree because of all of the constitutional violations that the police department has been involved in. So, I don’t think anybody should be surprised. … I am hopeful that the consent decree and the criminal indictments and these civil complaints all will work together to ultimately change the culture of the Baltimore Police Department. As a lawyer, I don’t know what other options we have on the table aside from suing them, criminally charging them, and then also having them be involved in a civil consent decree. I don’t know what else is out there that we can do.”

Johnson’s lawsuit cites a dozen other wrongful convictions stretching back to the 1960s in which misconduct by Baltimore homicide detectives was a significant contributing factor.

In 1968, Walter Lomax was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the fatal shooting of a food market’s manager. Critical evidence was not disclosed to Lomax’s trial counsel, including a police report in which an eyewitness identified someone else as the gunman. Lomax served nearly 40 years in prison before he was exonerated in 2014, after a reinvestigation by a Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) established in 2011 by then-State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein.

“I’ll be quite honest with you, for many, many years I just thought, ‘Well, maybe those people really just thought I was the person and misidentified me,’” Lomax told The Appeal. “I never in my wildest imagination thought that I had actually been framed for those charges.” But Lomax says that the CIU’s revelations about misconduct in his case changed his mind. “I wasn’t there as a victim of circumstance or just by chance. There was a concentrated plot.”

The CIU found that homicide detectives withheld or misplaced numerous pieces of exculpatory evidence, including police reports containing witness descriptions that did not match Lomax; and a photo identification made by a witness who was never called to testify in court, presumably because the person did not identify Lomax.

Issues emerge with ‘Homicide’ detectives

In 1988, James Owens was convicted of burglary and felony murder in a murder, rape, and robbery, based on the testimony of his neighbor, James Thompson, who had confessed to participating in the crime.  In 2007, Owens won a new trial after Thompson recanted and new DNA testing proved neither he nor Thompson had raped the victim. Owens also learned that detectives Jerry “Jay” Landsman, Thomas Pellegrini, and Gary Dunnigan suppressed Thompson’s initial statement denying any involvement in the crime, as well as evidence that he changed his account on more than five occasions. Owens was held in prison an additional 16 months awaiting a retrial until Baltimore prosecutors dropped the charges in 2008. In 2018, Owens settled a lawsuit against the Baltimore police and three of its detectives for $9 million; when his case was heard before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the judges concluded that the “officers’ omissions were not accidental, but intentional and malicious.”

Landsman, Pellegrini, and Dunnigan were featured in David Simon’s 1991 book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,which was then adapted into the popular TV show “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Landsman was also the name of a character on “The Wire, Simon’s other critically acclaimed television dramatization of Baltimore police. Several other detectives featured in Simon’s book also had issues with disclosing exculpatory evidence.

On March 8, 1982, Wendell Griffin was convicted for the 1981 murder of James Williams Wise and also for a related weapons charge. He was sentenced to life in prison. But thanks to a 2011 public records request, he learned that witnesses provided inconsistent statements that detectives Donald Kincaid, Edward Brown, and Jay Landsman never disclosed. They also withheld several witness statements and a photo array excluding Griffin, as well as other evidence indicating that someone else committed the crime. Griffin was freed in 2012 after prosecutors agreed to modify his sentence to time served.

In 2014, Sabein Burgess had his conviction for his girlfriend’s murder overturned after he proved that homicide detectives—including Goldstein, an investigator in Johnson’s case, and Detective Robert Patton—withheld exculpatory witness statements, including evidence pointing to an alternate suspect. According to the Baltimore Sun, Goldstein responded to the Burgess wrongful conviction lawsuit by saying he still had “absolutely no doubt” he was guilty. In 2017, however, a jury awarded $15 million to Burgess. Patton also withheld eyewitness statements and other exculpatory evidence, which led to the 1995 murder conviction of Antoine Pettiford, who was cleared five years later.

‘Serial’ shines a light on homicide unit tactics

Johnson’s civil rights lawsuit also reveals how several exonerations share the same homicide detectives who repeatedly engaged in misconduct. Detectives William Ritz and Steven Lehman worked the Burgess case, as well as the 1999 conviction of Malcolm Bryant in the killing of a 16-year-old girl. In 2016, Bryant was exonerated after the discovery of undisclosed witnesses and witness statements. Another detective, Greg MacGillivary, is tied to the wrongful convictions of Rodney Addison (overturned in 2005) and Garreth Parks (overturned in 2015).

In 1999, MacGillivary and Ritz led the investigation into what has become one of the most notorious homicide cases in Baltimore history: the disappearance and murder of high school student Hae Min Lee, and the arrest and conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed. In 2014, doubts were raised about Syed’s 2000 conviction after more than 80 million people downloaded the first season of the “Serial” podcast, which examined the case. The discovery of previously undisclosed evidence and ineffective representation by his trial counsel resulted in Syed’s conviction being overturned in 2016. Instead of pursuing a new trial or dropping the charges, the Maryland attorney general’s office appealed the ruling for nearly three years. On March 8, the Court of Appeals reinstated Syed’s conviction.

Having exhausted his appeals, Syed’s recent, and most successful, relief efforts have focused on post-conviction claims like ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct. But the investigation conducted by MacGillivary, Ritz, and Detective Darryl Massey can be scrutinized—and has been, by “Serial” producer and host Sarah Koenig, and the podcast “Undisclosed”—thanks to the public disclosure of police files. The Syed files reveal that the homicide detectives had lengthy, unrecorded pre-interviews with the prosecution’s star witness and avoided interviewing witnesses who might have supplied exculpatory statements.

On March 10, two days after Syed’s conviction was reinstated, HBO debuted a four-part docuseries called “The Case Against Adnan Syed” that picks up where “Serial” left off and reveals new evidence, including multiple, conflicting accounts from a key witness, that further taints the integrity of his conviction (the docuseries finale aired on March 31). Detective Darryl Massey, who has had a few of his own cases overturned because of “integrity issues,” participated in the series; his interviews project an unflappable confidence in the homicide unit’s tactics, despite its legacy of wrongful convictions.

“Back in the ’90s, Baltimore Homicide was known across the country for the ability to clear cases,” Massey brags in episode one. Later, he notes that homicide detectives can safely clear a case when they have 51 percent confidence that the suspect under arrest is guilty of the crime; convincing a jury to be 100 percent certain is up to prosecutors.

Clearance rate focus masks injustices

Massey’s comments reflect the Baltimore police’s long-held focus on arrest statistics as the primary metric for success. But arrests and cleared cases don’t necessarily result in convictions, let alone justice for the the actual perpetrators. That’s alarming anywhere, but for decades Baltimore has had a murder rate that is among the nation’s highest, and the police consume over $400 million from taxpayers every year—not including overtime costs, both legitimate and fraudulent—in the name of fighting crime.

Despite its outsize budget, the department has lagged behind in implementing new case management technologies that would reduce the likelihood of discovery violations. According to Johnson’s lawsuit, an internal assessment conducted in January 2000 found that Baltimore homicide detectives “kept case folders in ‘abysmal condition—that is, when they can be located,’ and … lacked appropriate processes and protocols for recording information gathered in the course of their investigations.” Now, homicide and other detective units manage their cases using Lotus Notes, software that was ahead of its time when it was developed—in the 1970s.  

The long list of constitutional violations alleged in Johnson’s lawsuit can be partly attributed to decades of inadequate training and unclear standards for complying with evidence disclosure obligations. But the suppression of exculpatory evidence over so many decades and cases points to something more sinister inside the Baltimore Police Department: a “win at any costs” approach to the crime of murder that destroys the innocent and allows the guilty to walk free.  “There’s a fundamental problem with policing, but also the entire criminal justice system,” Flowers, one of Johnson’s attorneys, told The Appeal. “It’s really a cultural change that has to happen. Most police departments train their police officers to be warriors with an ‘us against them’ mentality, as opposed to guardians where it’s ‘we are them.’”