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The Appeal Podcast: The Baltimore Police Department’s Troubled Homicide Unit

With Appeal contributor Amelia McDonell-Parry

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

A recent lawsuit accused the Baltimore Police Department’s homicide unit of a long pattern of questionable police work. Our guest, Appeal contributor Amelia McDonell-Parry, joins us today to discuss the case of Jerome L. Johnson, a man just released from prison after serving 30 years for a 1988 murder he didn’t commit. On this week’s episode, we will discuss the allegations raised in the suit regarding the unit’s discovery protocol, suppression of evidence, and lack of accountability. The Appeal is available on iTunes and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Twitter.


Adam Johnson: Welcome to The Appeal podcast. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember you can always follow us on social media at The Appeal magazine’s main Twitter and Facebook page and as always you can like and rate us on iTunes.

The death of Freddie Gray in 2015 and popular podcasts like Serial have shined a light on the Baltimore Police Department whose Homicide Division is well known for it’s sloppy, sometimes corrupt police work that has put dozens of people in jail for murders they didn’t do. Our guest, Appeal contributor Amelia McDonell-Parry joins us today to discuss the case of Jerome L. Johnson, a man just let out of prison last year after serving 30 years for a murder he didn’t commit. We will discuss the culture of bad discovery protocol, the suppression of evidence and the wholesale lack of accountability in the Baltimore Police Department.

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Amelia McDonell-Parry: One of the things I’ve often said about the Baltimore Police Department specifically is that there is a real sloppiness overall. So even the most sort of basic police reports to probable cause statements to evidence control, you know, chain of custody, there’s just an overwhelming amount of sloppiness that has become sort of institutionalized there and it works in their favor because they’re able to sort of point to that sloppiness as being either a cover for even bigger malfeasance or as a sort of excuse for it.

[End Clip]

Adam: Amelia thank you so much for joining us.

Amelia McDonell-Parry: Hey, thank you.

Adam: So today we are talking about the Baltimore Police Homicide Department, which evidently has quite a bad track record. So before we start drilling down on some of these cases you report about, your article focuses specifically on the case of Jerome L. Johnson. Can we set the table for our listeners by talking about what the kind of broad criticism of the Baltimore Homicide Department is over the years and by years I really want to focus on that. What is the kind of history of their problems relative to other police departments and what is the scope of the alleged malfeasance?

Amelia McDonell-Parry: Sure. So just quickly, Jerome Johnson was convicted of a 1988 murder and he was exonerated last year, so after serving 30 years in prison. And he’s filed this federal civil rights lawsuit that’s basically accusing not just the detectives in his case, but the Baltimore Police Department as a whole of sanctioning a culture of suppressing exculpatory evidence, pressuring witnesses, and otherwise having sort of tunnel vision, a tunnel vision approach to investigating murders, which is a pretty big deal anywhere, but in Baltimore, which has an incredibly high homicide rate this is particularly concerning. So in his lawsuit, he cites a number of other cases from over a period of decades going back all the way to the 1960s that demonstrate how homicide detectives have this history of withholding witness statements, you know, leaving out evidence, exculpatory evidence of photo lineups, all sorts of things that sort of speak to, that are either exculpatory evidence or impeachment evidence in order to sort of further the case that they’ve sort of settled on. And what you see is that looking back through a number of the cases that he cites in his lawsuit, um, and looking at the detectives who are involved, there’s definitely this sort of pattern of names, overlapping pairs and trios of detectives showing up on multiple cases over decades. And it’s almost sort of what you see happening is what appears to be a sort of handing down, passing along of these methods that have proven time and time again to have convicted the wrong people. And separate from that, his lawsuit also sort of makes the case that the Baltimore Police Department as a whole has never penalized these detectives or instituted any sort of additional training that teaches them what they should be turning over as part of the discovery process and essentially taking no action whatsoever to improve the tactics used by the homicide department. So there’s really no reason to believe that anything has changed at all. A lot of the cases that he cites are cases that have been overturned 10, 20, 30 years after the fact, and many of them were overturned in the last sort of decade or so. And so sort of this whole period, more recent period of murder convictions that have come out of the homicide department that are still sort of in limbo, that many of them are still being sort of appealed. So we don’t really quite know yet what other potential wrongful convictions that could have resulted from similar metrics still being used.

Adam: So on the Johnson case, there was multiple allegations, not just in the lawsuit, but obviously in the subsequent overturning of the conviction I assume-

Amelia McDonell-Parry: Right.

Adam: These are kind of now agreed upon facts by the state that there was suppressed testimony by a 15 year old girl who identified a different killer that wasn’t Johnson and this testimony was sort of put into a mystery folder and put in the basement and never heard from by the defense. And I assume not by any judge or jury as well, by definition. So this is part of a broader pattern within Baltimore Homicide. And to what extent has anything changed? I know that there is a Conviction Integrity Unit, a CIU, which has emerged, which is there to sort of oversee these convictions. But is there any kind of institutional mechanism to make sure that these kinds of egregious discovery violations, Brady violations aren’t going on today? I guess that was my first question when I read this. Is this still common?

Amelia McDonell-Parry: Yeah, well I would say first of all that within the department, within the Baltimore Police Department, absolutely not. Like there’s, first of all there has been no evidence that any measures were taken specifically as a result of these overturned cases. Like it hasn’t been that the Baltimore Police Department has been like, ‘gee, a lot of our murder convictions over the years have been overturned and it turns out because they’re all linked back to these detectives, you know, suppressing evidence’ and the suppression of this sort of witness statements speak to a larger problem, which is that what seems to be an approach of sort of settling on a suspect and then working backwards. And so seeking out evidence to prove that somebody is guilty and kind of avoiding evidence that may say otherwise. And so from what I understand there has been no evidence that anything has been done to sort of change that approach. And so looking at the department and its many, many, many other problems, it is very clear to me that there is no reason to believe that the Baltimore Police Department Homicide Unit has somehow improved on its own. I just don’t think that there is any evidence of that and it certainly isn’t something that is reflected throughout the department as a whole. So I don’t know why it would apply to the homicide unit either. I can say, well I can’t necessarily cite recent convictions that have been overturned because again, the appeals process takes often well over 10 years to sort of really sort of fully be resolved. So I think it could be a number of years before we see how more recent cases play out.

Adam: Right. There is always a bit of a lag, yeah.

Amelia McDonell-Parry: Yes, exactly. But the last State’s Attorney that Baltimore had, Gregg Bernstein, started the Conviction Integrity Unit in 2011 and that still exists under our current State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby. And her office, in collaboration with often times with the Innocence Project,* has kind of gone along with overturning a couple of wrongful convictions over the last couple of years. That being said, I would not necessarily say that the conviction integrity unit is catching all of them and that Mosby’s office is not prosecuting innocent people as well. I can tell you right off the top of my head, I’ve been looking deeply into a case that Marilyn Mosby is preparing to try for the fourth time in July, a murder case against a guy named Keith Davis Jr., who was shot by Baltimore Police back in 2015. And, uh, his supporters say he’s been basically framed for a murder to cover up this incident and police brutality, which happened about a month after Freddie Gray died and after the Baltimore Uprising. So that would be a case where, you know, there are questions surrounding that particular homicide investigation. I’ve personally listened to all of the trials that have happened thus far in this case. Um, they keep resulting in hung juries or one overturned conviction. And I can say with complete knowledge of the details that, um, the homicide department’s work in that particular murder investigation leaves much to be desired. What’s interesting about that case is that there is evidence of suppressed evidence including video footage that was turned over three years later that the homicide detective in that case had said for years had no evidentiary value. But it turns out it shows the victim walking to work and closely behind him, someone who could very likely be the killer, that was never turned over to the defense and only recently came to light during the last trial. So that’s an example of sort of tactics that have continued. And one thing that I think is interesting is that what you see throughout all the cases decided in Jerome Johnson’s lawsuit is the suppression of witness statements. The statements that would have sort of impeached the detectives theory on who actually committed the crime. And so those weren’t being turned over. What I have noticed in the Keith Davis Jr. case is something a little different, which is just not seeking out witness statements at all in cases where the detective has sort of settled on who did it and then you know, quickly sort of searching for the sort of evidence that will allegedly corroborate that theory and then outright avoiding any evidence that could be considered exculpatory, including witness statements. So that seems to be like a little bit of a, a new tweak, like a new twist on some of their methods. But yeah, there does seem to be this kind of continuation of having tunnel vision and working backwards that’s deeply concerning. And like I said, the homicide detective in that case, his name is Mark Feeney, he’s been with the department for something like 30 years and many, many, many of those years were in the homicide department during a time when many of the detectives cited in Jerome Johnson lawsuit were working and were, you know, overseeing cases. And so what you have is that there are a number of longtime detectives in the homicide unit who were trained under these guys and you know, you really got wonder if they’re just kind of continuing their history.

Adam: Yeah, I mean, anecdotally, when I ask people, because in my line of work, I’ll sometimes ask ‘who do you think the most corrupt police department is?’ This is obviously very anecdotal and unscientific, but I would say by far the most common answer is Baltimore. They have a number of controversies. Uh, not just of course in the homicide department, but in general. Obviously there was Freddie Gray in 2015 where they put him in the van and he had a quote unquote “rough ride” I believe it was called.

Amelia McDonell-Parry: Not true, by the way.

Adam: What was not true?

Amelia McDonell-Parry: The theory that Freddie Gray was killed in a rough ride isn’t true. I worked on a podcast actually that did a sort of deep investigation into what happened to Freddie Gray. And what we found is that he was, that witnesses saw him being thrown headfirst into the wagon shortly after his arrest and he was unresponsive after that. So that’s another example yes of the department sort of covering up.

Adam: So there was Freddie Gray in 2015. There was the spy plane controversy, where basically a billionaire paid for a spy plane that was not really sanctioned by the city. There was a Gun Trace Task Force, which we don’t have time to get into. There was the murder of Sean Suiter who was a homicide detective who was supposed to testify in the Gun Task Force case the day before he was supposed to testify he was murdered in a very, uh, under mysterious circumstances. Uh, there was body camera tampering. We could go on and on and on. But one of the things you note is that there is this culture of not being accountable. And I really think this of course speaks to it. If I can, if pretty much anyone can be a lazy shithead on their jobs and get away with it, a lot of people would do this. Only the problem is when you’re the police, this puts people in prison for 30, 50 years because there’s no oversight. There’s no real mechanism. This seems like the fundamental problem. And you note that one of the biggest problems they had throughout the years is that they seemingly don’t give a shit about discovery, which may sort of bore people, but actually discovery is sort of super important, biggest discovery is, is how you get a fair trial. And the police in the state control all the evidence. So they’re not disclosing exculpatory evidence is how you put innocent people in jail. Uh, there was an internal assessment in January of 2000 that you write that found that Baltimore homicide detectives had quote “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.” So we not, we not only have malice, we also have negligence. A sort of culture of negligence. Can we talk about this discovery issue?

Amelia McDonell-Parry: Yes.

Adam: Uh, how widespread this has been and what do the lawyers you’ve spoken to, what do the defense lawyers spoken to say about their, their procedures?

Amelia McDonell-Parry: Well, you know, the discovery processes involves sort of two entities. There’s the police department which is supposed to turn over evidence to the state’s attorney’s office and then the state’s attorney’s office is supposed to turn that over to defense attorneys. I have heard that no matter who is in office at the state’s attorney’s office, no matter who was working for them, they’re consistent problems with the state’s attorney’s office turning over discovery to defense attorneys in a timely fashion that they often have to fight to get discovery turned over to them quickly but in an organized sort of fashion, they have to repeatedly request things. And then as you noted before, you know, discovery is key. What often happens, you know, it’s very easy to get a conviction but it’s much harder to overturn it. And so when attorneys receive the sort of full case file after their client has been convicted and then they discover amongst that case file exculpatory evidence that would have been useful to them during trial they then have years and years and years of hoops they have to jump through in order to use that evidence to hopefully, you know, with a hope and a prayer, see their client be released. So it’s a big deal because eventually that evidence often does come out. The problem is is that the defendant has to spend years in prison waiting for somebody to consider it important enough to actually really pay attention to. Within the department as a whole, like I said, there has not been any specific training given to officers about what they actually really need to be turning over to the state’s attorney’s office. And I would say that there are problems within the state’s attorney’s office in terms of disclosing that evidence to defense attorneys. It just hasn’t really sort of changed. And one of the things I’ve often said about the Baltimore Police Department specifically,is that there is a real sloppiness overall to even the most sort of basic police reports to um, probable cause statements to evidence control, you know, chain of custody. There’s just an overwhelming amount of sloppiness that has become sort of institutionalized there and it, it works in their favor because they’re able to sort of point to that sloppiness as being either a cover for even bigger malfeasance or as a sort of excuse for it. And you know, what you see is that, that these, like a department like Baltimore doesn’t update its technology very often because doing so would make it much easier for them to adhere to their discovery, uh, responsibilities. And that’s not necessarily what everyone wants.

Adam: Sort of willful negligence on an institutional level.

Amelia McDonell-Parry: Yes.

Adam: Because they have a huge budget for a small police department. They have, and they spend more per police officer than any city in the country. They have a budget of about $400 million, which for a city the size of Baltimore significant.

Amelia McDonell-Parry: Right. And they manage to exceed it basically every year in overtime costs.

Adam: Oh yeah. Well the overtime is how you grease the police unions and you kind of factor that in. I think the NYPD traditionally goes over quote unquote “their overtime budget,” they go over approximately 32 percent every year.

Amelia McDonell-Parry: Yeah. Speaking of kind of like accountability, this is something that has been going on sort of for years and there’s always sort of outrage about, you know, ‘oh my god, the police department, despite having this huge budget managed to go over again and they need, you know, they obviously need more money from the city in order to cover the costs.’ And yet despite this outrage and despite sort of knowing this is like a repeat pattern, just this year, the budget was recently released and they were given a budget increase, but I can almost guarantee that they will exceed that as well. It’s just become completely part of the culture.

Adam: They’ll take whatever overtime they politically can. The NYPD did this during the Eric Garner protests, they kept demagoguing the Black Lives Matter protests and saying that, ‘oh, this is causing all this overtime.’ Right? To sort of undermine the, the protests, but then when you actually run the numbers, when you actually run the numbers, the amount of overtime they took was exactly the same amount of overtime they took over the same two week period the year prior and the year prior before that. In 2014 versus 2013 and 2012. They love to use overtime to undermine protest movements. But um, can you talk about what people are trying to do to parlay these some more high profile cases like Freddie Gray or Serial into something that’s actually actionable? Well, what is sort of on the table right now to do that?

Amelia McDonell-Parry: I have not been able to sort of tear my eyes off of Baltimore criminal justice and corruption for the last couple of years and so much so that I finally moved here. But overall since the Uprising and since Freddie Gray, I sort of feel like the national media has sort of turned away from Baltimore, even as the, the stories get even more corrupt and outlandish and just The Wire but times a thousand. And I can’t, I’ve never been kind of, I haven’t been able to sort of figure out why, and I sort of, when I talk to people about Baltimore, as I often do, people who don’t live here sort of look at me like they don’t quite believe it, that it could be as bad as it is, but we’re talking about a city where it’s not just the police department that’s incredibly corrupt, there are other aspects of city government that are incredibly corrupt. And so the problem for activists is there are so many things to put their energy towards. So many issues to draw attention to. I mean, the mayor just this week stepped aside from her duties because she’s basically been busted trading, well, it’s kind of confusing, but trading favors for her children’s book sales, uh, and giving, you know, lucrative contracts to medical institutions in exchange for money that she’s pocketed. So there’s that going on. Then you have the GTTF scandal, which numerous officers have been sent to federal prison, but that is hardly over. There was, you know, fairly recently an indictment of a former Baltimore police sergeant named Keith Gladstone that signaled, you know, the indictments are far from over and the FBI is still digging into corruption in other parts of the department. That’s not even homicide. So activists I think are doing what they’ve always done, which is screaming for accountability, showing up to every possible city meeting, demanding that whoever the latest police commissioner is be fully vetted by the mayor and by the city council. And I think that the activists here are some of the most organized and smart and capable activists in this country. They’re passion is incredibly commendable and their love for Baltimore is inspiring. And what’s so frustrating to see is how often their cries and the cries of the community are falling on deaf ears. And I’m not quite sure what can be done about it. I think the fact that the FBI has finally stepped in is lending serious credibility to what the community and what activists have been saying for decades and hopefully that will make some sort of a difference, but I’m not sure.

Adam: All right. Well thank you so much for coming on. This was fantastic.

Amelia McDonell-Parry: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Adam: Thank you to our guest Amelia McDonell-Parry. Remember you can always follow us at The Appeal magazine’s mean Facebook and Twitter page. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive Producer Sarah Leonard. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much. We’ll see you next week.

*This reference is to the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, not to be confused with the Innocence Project.