Testilying in New York

"Most of the officers at the 30th Precinct during that time were lying about arrests they were making. That's just the way things were done."

Date: Sun, 5 Jan 1997 21:24:38 -0800
From: mnovick@laedu.lalc.k12.ca.us (michael novick)
Subject: NYTimes on police perjury scandal

January 5, 1997 Police Lied, and New York Pays the Price By DAVID KOCIENIEWSKI

The 30th Precinct corruption case, the New York Police Department's biggest drug scandal in a generation, has also grown into the most damaging perjury scandal in state history and may eventually become the costliest.

Prosecutors have been forced to throw out 125 cases against 98 defendants because their convictions were based on untruthful testimony by officers from the Harlem station house -- more dismissals than any other police perjury case on record in the state, according to officials at the State Office of Court Administration.

For criminals, the police officers' corruption provided what might be called a perjury dividend, by freeing several admitted drug dealers who were still in prison and sealing the records of those cases. About 70 of the defendants whose convictions were dismissed admitted in later interviews with prosecutors that they were committing crimes when they were arrested.

Beyond the criminal justice system, several of those drug dealers and perjury victims are reaching deep into the pockets of city taxpayers as they seek recourse in civil court. Some, even the confessed drug dealers, have sued the city for unlawful imprisonment and won six-figure settlements. Legal experts predict that those awards and settlements, which already total $1.3 million, could eventually cost city taxpayers $10 million. The financial toll may not be known for years, however, because prosecutors have identified 2,000 cases in which the corrupt officers' testimony tainted the evidence.

And some New Yorkers, like Daniel Batista, insist they were framed by the officers, imprisoned for crimes they did not commit and forced to spend years behind bars.

"No one believed me when I told them what happened," said Mr. Batista, 28, who spent 13 months in prison and nearly two years in a halfway house before his conviction for gun possession was overturned. "I lost my marriage and my business and almost three years of my life. And now that I'm out, nobody really cares."

But legal experts say the fallout from the scandal, exposed in 1994 with the revelation that one-sixth of the precinct's officers had routinely stolen drug money, guns and cash, will be felt for years.

William J. Bratton, who was the Police Commissioner at the time, retired the officers' badges, and the scandal quickly reverberated throughout the city, with tales unspooling day by day of officers shaking down drug dealers, raiding homes illegally and selling cocaine.

Behind the scenes, prosecutors began worrying that any arrests made by those officers would be invalidated, and their suspicions were later confirmed when the corrupt officers admitted they had lied on the witness stand at one trial after another.

As the last of the 33 officers who were convicted of drug dealing, robbery and perjury are to be sentenced this month, many judges say the officers' offenses have left an enduring imprint on criminal cases. The pattern of perjury, so routine that police officers sarcastically called it "testilying," has made it harder to find jurors who will believe their accounts. Once again, the judges say, mistrust between New Yorkers and their Police Department, especially in minority communities, has grown.

Police officials and the Manhattan District Attorney's office have started new training programs to help prosecutors and police officers detect and prevent police perjury.

But some Harlem residents say it will be difficult for officers to regain the community's trust.

"You would always hear people complaining about the cops up here," said Richard Bellows, superintendent of an apartment building on St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem. "But until I saw them getting arrested and talking about drug dealing and lying about their arrests, I never knew whether to believe it. I've personally had mostly good experiences with them. But now I always wonder what else they might be up to."

A Disputed Arrest 2 Officers' Word Against Witnesses'

Mr. Batista, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, said he had not been leery of police officers before the evening of June 30, 1992, when his life was changed by the 30th Precinct police scandal. He had no criminal record and had never been arrested. As Mr. Batista stood on the stoop of a building on West 149th Street, where he says he was waiting to meet a friend for dinner, he did not pay much attention to the approaching police officers until they grabbed his arm and arrested him.

The officers, David Benitez and James Velez of the 30th Precinct, later testified that they stopped Mr. Batista because they saw a bulge under his shirt and discovered an illegal handgun.

But Mr. Batista and three other witnesses insisted that the two officers planted the gun. Mr. Batista and the three witnesses who eventually testified on his behalf said the officers assumed he was a drug dealer, took his keys and tried to open the doors of a house where they had made previous drug arrests. After several minutes, the witnesses said, the officers found that the keys would not fit the doors because Mr. Batista did not live there, so Officer Benitez walked into the building next door and returned with a loaded .357 magnum.

"This gun is yours," Officer Benitez said, according to Mr. Batista's defense witnesses who testified at his trial.

Before the trial, there were warning signs that called the officers' truthfulness into question. The police Internal Affairs Bureau investigated Mr. Batista's charge that Officers Velez and Benitez had robbed and beaten him, but could not substantiate the allegation. Even more disconcerting to Elizabeth Lambert, an assistant district attorney, were inconsistencies in the two officers' testimony.

"I took them into a room and asked them what the deal was," Ms. Lambert said. "But Officer Benitez was very professional, very calm and such a nice guy that he convinced me he was telling the truth."

One of Mr. Batista's witnesses had credibility problems of his own. Julio Suarez, who corroborated Mr. Batista's version of the arrest, was wanted on a warrant because he had previously been arrested for selling cocaine at 557 West 149th Street -- the same address where Mr. Batista was taken into custody.

"It came down to the police officers' word against him and his friends," said Angela Yanovich, the jury forewoman at Mr. Batista's trial in December 1992. "His witnesses looked bad. One seemed too street smart to be telling the truth. The other one seemed like he was on heroin. And we just couldn't think of any reason why the police officers would go to the trouble of making up a story and framing someone."

At sentencing, even the judge ridiculed Mr. Batista, saying it was "preposterous" to claim that the officers had framed him.

"I don't believe you should be punished for exercising your right to trial," Justice Bernard J. Fried told the defendant in State Supreme Court in Manhattan. "But I believe it is appropriate for me to consider the perjury that you've committed in this courtroom, as I viewed it."

The minimum sentence for a first-time gun offender is one to three years in prison, and Judge Fried sentenced Mr. Batista to two to six years.

A Growing Scandal Trying to Untangle A Web of Deceit

When the first plausible complaints of drug dealing by 30th Precinct officers began filtering in during 1991, prosecutors expected it would be just another corruption investigation like the police scandals in the 77th, 75th and 73d Precincts in Brooklyn, where mainly drug-dealing, not perjury, was uncovered.

By 1993, the Manhattan District Attorney's office, the United States Attorney, Mary Jo White, and a special mayoral commission to fight police corruption had all started undercover sting operations into allegations against 30th Precinct officers. For more than a year, sordid details of the officers' drug-dealing crimes made headlines, earning the precinct the nickname the Dirty Thirty.

There were charges, later proved, of the police conducting "key jobs," or stealing drug dealers' house keys and then robbing their apartments; of a gang of officers who dragged a drug dealer's safe into the station house, pried it open and stole thousands of dollars; of a team that worked with Sgt. Kevin Nannery and stole so wantonly that they called themselves Nannery's Raiders.

At the same time the drug scandal was unfolding, police commanders and prosecutors were also quietly untangling an intricate web of deceit that the 30th Precinct officers had left in the court system.

In addition to conducting illegal raids and stealing and dealing drugs, a dozen officers later acknowledged that they routinely lied under oath. Most admitted committing perjury fewer than a dozen times, but one sergeant admitted to lying on the witness stand in 75 trials and court hearings, according to court papers.

Officer George Nova, who admitted to repeated acts of perjury, said lying under oath was standard procedure. Some officers lied to protect their own drug businesses, while others committed perjury to counterbalance the loopholes used by drug dealers to evade the police, Mr. Nova said.

"I won't generalize and say everyone," he said after he agreed to help the prosecutors, "but most of the officers at the 30th Precinct during that time were lying about arrests they were making. That's just the way things were done."

As the scope of the perjury became apparent, Dan Castleman, chief of investigations for the Manhattan District Attorney's office, assembled a team of prosecutors to review every case in which the corrupt officers had ever testified -- 2,000 in all. Although most of the officers said they had lied to help put criminals behind bars, their perjury ultimately had the opposite effect.

"It was like a 'get out of jail free' card for criminals," said Emery Adoradio, the prosecutor who handled most of the perjury cases.

Prosecutors interviewed all 98 defendants whose convictions were overturned; more than 70 admitted they were indeed breaking the law when arrested.

Drug dealers, some of whom had received life sentences because they were arrested selling several kilograms of cocaine, were set free. The same prosecutors who had convicted defendants for drug possession or selling drugs suddenly found themselves arguing for the defendants' release and the prosecution of the police officers.

"Part of our job is to put guilty people behind bars," said William Burmeister, head of the Manhattan District Attorney's public corruption unit. "But the other part is to see that no one is put away on perjured testimony or tainted evidence."

At least 25 defendants have used that tainted evidence as the ground for lawsuits against the city, and some have won six-figure damage awards or settlements.

Samuel Victor admitted that he was dealing drugs when Officers George Nova and Barry Brown arrested him, prosecutors said. But the officers admitted lying about the details of their search of Mr. Victor, so he was released from prison and filed a civil suit for unlawful imprisonment that won him a $725,000 settlement. Athos Lopez, another perjury victim, received a $15,000 settlement. Of the more than 25 lawsuits that have been filed, 20 are still pending.

Beyond the looming financial settlements, experts warn that the perjury scandal could rebound for years inside city courtrooms.

Judge Frederic S. Berman, who presided over three cases later overturned because of police perjury, said he believes that most police officers still tell the truth, but that many of the jurors in his courtroom do not share that opinion.

"Jurors, sadly, have lost confidence in some instances in police testimony," Judge Berman said. "It's harder and harder to get jurors in a case where the prosecutor's case rests on police testimony." A Freed Convict After Prison, Charges Dismissed

Daniel Batista was not among the fortunate defendants whose cases were dismissed before their sentences were finished. During his 13 months in prison, Mr. Batista said he spent day after day in the library, trying to figure out how to prove his innocence.

Joseph Holmes, who worked at the Legal Aid Society's appeals bureau, said Mr. Batista was already in a halfway house in 1995 when he read a newspaper article about the 30th Precinct scandal and learned that both of his arresting officers had themselves been arrested.

Officer Velez was convicted of perjury for falsely testifying that a Manhattan man, Robert Monzon, had been carrying drugs. Mr. Monzon was acquitted of the charges and Officer Velez was sentenced to one to three years in prison. Officer Benitez was convicted of extortion for taking payoffs from drug dealers and sentenced to six months in Federal prison.

In addition, Officer Joseph Walsh, who admitted to committing perjury 75 times -- more than any other 30th Precinct officer -- had told prosecutors of at least one incident in 1991 when he said Officers Benitez and Velez helped plant a gun on a suspect.

Officers Benitez and Velez never recanted their testimony in the Batista case. But their credibility, which was the basis for Mr. Batista's conviction, was so badly damaged that prosecutors did not contest the motion to discard that conviction.

Mr. Batista's lawyer, Zachary Flax, said there was far more evidence against Officers Velez and Benitez than there was against Mr. Batista.

"He gave a perfect description of a key job, years before anyone in the public knew what a key job was. How likely is that?" Mr. Flax asked.

Still, prosecutors are reluctant to say that Mr. Batista never committed the crime. Ms. Lambert, who has since left the District Attorney's office, said she felt "the ultimate betrayal" when she heard that one of the officers had been convicted of perjury for framing a defendant.

"To this day, I don't know what happened on that stoop," she said of the site of Mr. Batista's arrest.

"At this point, there's obviously some truth to Batista's story, although I didn't think all of his testimony sounded believable. But he may have been guilty of something. I just don't know."

Judge Fried, who presided over the case and later signed the motion to dismiss the conviction, would not discuss the case.

Mr. Batista had hoped to receive compensation for the time he spent behind bars. But he said recently that the lawyer he contacted about suing the city missed the deadline for filing the necessary paperwork. A Lingering Mistrust Efforts to Change Could Take Years

The Police Department has created several training programs to help prevent similar scandals and repair some of the damage to the department's credibility. In fact, some law enforcement officials say, the legacy of the 30th Precinct scandal may be that it forced the criminal justice system to acknowledge that police officers sometimes lie on the witness stand.

Two years ago, when prosecutors realized the extent of the perjury in the precinct, some ranking police commanders argued that officers should not be prosecuted. Police tradition, they said, allowed otherwise honest officers to occasionally "shade" their testimony by changing details of arrests to conform with search and seizure laws.

Today, New York City police cadets receive extensive training about perjury; officers are taught how to appear credible without resorting to embellishment; and commanders and assistant district attorneys are given courses on how to spot questionable police testimony.

Deputy Inspector Thomas E. Belfiore, one of the Internal Affairs detectives who led the 30th Precinct investigation, is now the commander of the city's Police Academy and has helped develop a curriculum to teach officers the steep costs of lying to strengthen a case. His course even includes a role-playing segment during which officers are forced to choose between committing perjury to protect their partner or telling the truth and, in effect, charging their partner with lying.

"We want them to recognize that this can cost them their jobs, their pensions, their self-respect," Inspector Belfiore said. "It's just not worth it."

Commissioner Safir, who assumed control of the department after the perjury was uncovered, has continued the department's hard line against lying by police officers.

"We have a zero-tolerance policy on lying," Mr. Safir said. "You can make a case the correct way, without lying, and if you don't get him the first time, you'll probably get him the next time, because most of these criminals keep breaking the law."

But others question whether a strong enough message has been sent. One of the 30th Precinct officers, Steven Pataki, was convicted of perjury that sent a man to prison for three years. Officer Pataki was given a three-month sentence.

Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder, who presided over the trials of several of the 30th Precinct police officers, praised the Police Department's response, but said the legal system's response was ambiguous.

"There is a perception that the 30th Precinct police officers who committed perjury got off easy," Judge Snyder said.

And in a recent manslaughter trial of a police officer charged with choking a Bronx man to death, the judge chastised police witnesses for their contradictory testimony, calling it "a nest of perjury." He nonetheless acquitted the officer accused in the case, Francis X. Livoti, finding there was not enough evidence to substantiate the charges. None of the officers who testified have been charged with lying under oath.

Given the lingering mistrust from some segments of the community, and the resistance from some members of the police force who believe that the legal system is far too sympathetic to criminals, even optimistic commanders acknowledge that it will take years to heal the rift.

"The only way to win that kind of respect and credibility back is with the truth," Inspector Belfiore said. "What we're trying to teach officers is that the truth is what is most important. Maybe it ends up that you lose a case because of it, but you're winning a larger prize and that is credibility in the community."

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