Three years after indicting 25 state corrections officers and accusing them of being a criminal gang, city prosecutors are dropping the cases, attorneys for some of the defendants said Friday.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby stood with state corrections officials in December 2019 touting that a lengthy investigation had led to the discovery of a “criminal enterprise functioning within” an elite tactical unit, whose members were indicted on gang, misconduct in office and assault charges. Prosecutors tried unsuccessfully to have some detained pending trial.
Instead, the cases are being dismissed. Defense attorney Martin Cohen said he was informed by the prosecutor handling the case that all defendants were being cleared; other attorneys received emails from the court saying their cases had been formally dropped Friday.
A spokeswoman for the State’s Attorney’s Office did not respond to messages seeking comment Friday, but said in a statement Monday that after a judge dismissed assault charges, the cases were no longer viable. Prosecutors said they remain “convinced” that the defendants “partook in a culture of using excessive force against inmates.”
The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which had touted the investigation as proof it was rooting out corruption, said late Friday that its executive leadership had not been notified of the decision to drop the cases and said its investigators had been “fully prepared to move forward.”
“If the charges are dismissed in this matter, the department will review all options, to include administrative action as dictated by personnel regulations, the Correctional Officers Bill of Rights, the law, and guidance from the department’s legal counsel,” said spokesman Mark Vernarelli.
The case had stalled for almost three years, in large part due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a group of the corrections officers were set to go to trial earlier this summer when the prosecutor handling the case, Michael Hudak, abruptly left the State’s Attorney’s Office. Defense attorneys sought to have the charges thrown out over speedy trial concerns, which was rejected by Judge Jeffrey M. Geller.
Attorney Josh Insley, who represented Eugene Early, was informed by the court that his client’s case and three others had been dropped Friday. He said his client “never should have been charged.”
“My client never committed a crime, and it was a political stunt from the beginning, that now that they are being forced to actually try, of course it fell apart,” Insley said.
Cohen said new prosecutors who took over the case listened to concerns about the evidence. His client, Davon Telp, was shocked to hear about the dropped charges but was thrilled and eager to return to work as a corrections officer. He said the officers still with the department are entitled to back pay.
“Now he can breathe, and start his life again,” Cohen said.
The state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services launched an investigation into its tactical unit in 2018, after hearing rumors of abuses by the unit.
Insley, whose client had been in the Marines, said the unit “exists because they don’t trust their correctional officers, so they brought in outside C.O.s to conduct unannounced sweeps.” The unit worked at the Metropolitan Transition Center, the Baltimore Pretrial Facility, the state Corrections Department’s Jail Industries Building, and Baltimore City Booking and Intake Facility.
“While the investigation revealed a series of seemingly isolated incidents dating back to 2016, further examination divulged multiple examples of excessive force utilized against detainees at different facilities, which ultimately led to the discovery of a criminal enterprise functioning within the tactical unit,” Mosby said in announcing the indictments.
The indictment accused Capt. Kevin Hickson of being the “organizer, supervisor, promoter and manager” of the criminal enterprise, and charged 47 incidents in which he or other members of his team allegedly assaulted detainees.
Hickson’s attorney, David Solomon, said that it “appeared” that his client’s charges were being dropped but that he was waiting until Monday to speak with the prosecutor.
Insley said that he and his client approached a reverse-proffer session with prosecutors with trepidation, unsure what new evidence might be presented. “The evidence we had [to that point] was farcical,” Insley said. “We went in concerned, and left laughing.”
Cohen said attorneys had previously won a motion to dismiss some of the charges against the officers, saying they had been charged outside of the statute of limitations. He said some of the assault charges related to alleged incidents in jurisdictions outside of Baltimore, and that city prosecutors needed the gang statute to pursue them. He said prosecutors were going to be hard-pressed to prove the gang charges.
Attorney Warren Brown said his client, Darnell Slacum, left the state corrections department and joined the military. He said his client was “on the periphery” of the allegations. “They just kind of threw him in there. They went overboard in prosecuting him,” Brown said.
Brown said there was “validity to the prosecution of some of these people, they crossed the line in terms of dealing with folks.” He said that some of the corrections officers had placed metal inside padded gloves they were issued.
“It’s a fine line to walk — you can’t let the inmates run the asylum, but by the same token you can’t impose cruel and unusual punishment. But you’re not dealing with choir kids either,” Brown said.