A PROJECT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA IRVINE NEWKIRK CENTER FOR SCIENCE & SOCIETY,
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN LAW SCHOOL & MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF LAW
A PROJECT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA IRVINE NEWKIRK CENTER FOR SCIENCE & SOCIETY,
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN LAW SCHOOL & MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF LAW
More than 1,100 defendants in Philadelphia had convictions overturned after members of the city's drug squad were arrested and charged with a wide range of crimes.
The actions came to light after a Philadelphia police officer admitted that members of the police department’s elite Narcotics Field Unit engaged in widespread misconduct for years. He disclosed this misconduct when facing his own arrest in 2013.
Jeffrey Walker joined the Philadelphia Police Department in 1989 and became a member of the narcotics squad in 1999. He became a formidable presence on the streets, often working undercover to root drug dealers out of impoverished neighborhoods. His nickname was “Batman,” and his partner, Officer Brian Reynolds, was known as “Robin.”
In May 2013, Walker approached a man for help in robbing drug dealers. The man contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which then set up a sting, using him as their informant. Between May 6 and May 20, Walker and the informant planned the robbery, which would involve planting the drugs in the dealer’s car, pulling the car over in a traffic stop, and then taking the keys to the dealer’s house.
On May 21, 2013, the informant and an FBI agent acting as a dealer drove to a local bar, where they parked and entered the bar. Walker then planted cocaine in their car. Later, Philadelphia police stopped the “dealer” for allegedly speeding as he drove from the bar. Walker’s report said that during the stop, the officers saw the driver place an object under the seat. They searched the car and found the planted cocaine. Walker also seized the “dealer’s” house key. The FBI arrested Walker a few hours later as he left his house with $15,000 in cash and 5 pounds of marijuana.
Prosecutors indicted Walker the next day for armed robbery and use of a gun in the commission of a crime. Walker pled guilty to both charges in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on February 24, 2014. His sentencing was delayed while he cooperated with federal authorities in their probe of corruption within the Philadelphia Police Department.
On July 29, 2014, a federal grand jury indicted six other officers in the narcotics squad. The 26-count indictment alleged a vast criminal and racketeering enterprise between February 2006 and November 2012.
The six officers charged were Thomas Liciardello, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman, John Speiser, and Reynolds. All were veterans of the Narcotics Field Unit. None worked in the unit at the time of their arrest. Four had been moved out of the department in 2012 when federal and state prosecutors became wary that frequent complaints against some of the officers could damage their credibility in court. The FBI investigated Liciardello and Reynolds in 2005, but did not bring charges.
The indictment alleged 22 episodes where the officers – including Walker – broke the law, robbing defendants of more than $460,000 in cash and personal property. Many of these individuals were alleged drug dealers, persons whom the officers believed would not complain about mistreatment or try to recover the stolen funds.
The episodes include instances where the officers were said to have threatened defendants or held them against their will. They stole cocaine, as well as watches, phones, and jewelry. In one raid, in 2011, they kicked a man’s teeth out, hit him with a steel bar, and then stole approximately $34,400 in cash. In another, they were alleged to have leaned a drug dealer named Michael Cascioli over the balcony of his apartment in an effort to get him to divulge the password to his palm pilot.
The Philadelphia Police Department held a press conference on November 28, 2007 to show off evidence they said had been seized during a raid on a high-rise apartment building just inside the Philadelphia city limits. They displayed 16 pounds of marijuana and 12 pounds of psychedelic mushrooms. The drugs had a street value of more than $1.2 million. Police arrested Michael Cascioli during the raid. They said he was a high-level dealer, selling drugs in the Philadelphia suburbs, and that his marijuana was so potent that young people were ending up in area emergency rooms.
Cascioli was charged with a wide range of drug offenses. He ended up taking a plea deal on May 12, 2009, and serving 13 months in prison.
In October 2013, the FBI contacted Cascioli. Walker had been arrested that May and was cooperating with the federal government as it tried to build a case against his fellow officers.
According to the indictment against the officers, the police saw Cascioli outside his apartment on November 26, 2007. Cascioli later acknowledged he was in the process of delivering drugs to a neighbor in his apartment building. The police did not have a search warrant. Cascioli thought he was being robbed by rival drug dealers. The group of officers included Liciardello, Walker, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman, and Michael Spicer.
As they searched Cascioli’s apartment, the officers hit and threatened him, trying to get more information on his suppliers and customers. In particular, Liciardello wanted access to Cascioli’s Palm Pilot, and he told Walker and Norman to do what was necessary to get the password.
According to the indictment, Norman took Cascioli to the balcony of his 18th-floor apartment and leaned him over the side until he cooperated.
The officers stole $8,000 worth of jewelry and other personal items. They also swiped Cascioli’s cash and used it to order pizza, according to the indictment. None of this conduct made its way into the official report filed with the police department. The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas vacated Cascioli’s conviction in March 2014. He has filed a lawsuit against the police department for violating his civil rights. The lawsuit remains pending.
Most of these incidents involved raids on suspected dealers, and the actions generated substantial paperwork, known as 75-49 reports. The officers falsified these reports to hide their conduct. They under-reported the amount of cash or drugs seized, and they omitted acts of violence and threats against defendants. Philadelphia suspended all the officers after their arrests, pending dismissal.
“That many of the victims were drug dealers, not Boy Scouts, is irrelevant,” Edward Hanko, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia office told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “This corrupt group chose to make their own rules. Now they will have to answer for it.”
The six officers went to trial in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on March 30, 2015. Walker was the government’s star witness. He named Liciardello as the group’s leader, and testified that the group valued loyalty among its members. “I would lie for them. I would steal for them. I would abuse people for them. I wanted to be part of the squad.”
He testified that his break with the other members of the police department happened around 2009, after an argument with Liciardello. He began patrolling alone, in violation of department policy. Later, he said he felt further isolated from his colleagues after they teased him about his divorce and about having gastric-bypass surgery.
In 2013, Internal Affairs began investigating Liciardello after a prosecutor complained about his court behavior. Walker was called to testify. Rather than talk to Liciardello ahead of time to square their stories, Walker told Internal Affairs about the problems in the field unit. Liciardello found out and texted Walker: “You are dead to everyone in this squad. . . . The problem you have is you’re now a rat. I hope you die.”
As part of his testimony, Walker detailed his own extensive misconduct, which he said began almost immediately after he became an officer. He stole drugs and cash, falsified requests for search warrants, and lied in court — unconcerned about the repercussions of his actions. “I didn’t think of them as being humans. They were criminals. It never crossed my mind.”
Walker’s credibility came under attack during cross-examination. Attorneys for the six other officers zeroed in on his drinking problem, his tendency to work alone, and the deal he was willing to cut with prosecutors after his own arrest. In addition, he had been the subject of 22 Internal Affairs complaints during his career.
Many of the government’s other witnesses had significant arrest and conviction records. Although their testimonies lined up in large part with Walker’s accounts, enough inconsistencies emerged to cast doubt on the government’s case. Spicer was the only defendant who testified. He said that Liciardello was aggressive and could be a braggart but never crossed the line.
On May 14, 2015, the jury acquitted all six officers. They all returned to work, although Betts was fired later that year for testing positive for marijuana.
Walker was sentenced to 42 months in federal prison on July 29, 2015. At his sentencing hearing, Judge Eduardo Robreno said: “His conduct affected not only those directly involved, but it undermined public confidence and integrity of the police and, in turn, affected the administration of justice.”
Robreno also presided over the trial of Liciardello and the other officers, and he said during the sentencing hearing that he found Walker to be a credible and truthful witness. He noted that Walker had received consistently good evaluations until he was perceived to be cooperating with Internal Affairs.
Speaking rhetorically, Robreno asked, “Now, how does the court’s finding that Walker’s testimony was truthful and reliable square with the jury’s verdict that all the defendants were not guilty of all of the charges?” He said the government had not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Even before the indictments against the six officers, defendants whose convictions were tied to activities of the Narcotics Field Unit had begun filing motions for post-conviction relief, based on allegations that the officers had histories of false arrests and excessive force.
The courts often dispatched these cases in groups. On November 9, 2013, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas dismissed 53 convictions. Most of the defendants had already served their prison sentences. These cases were handled by the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which represents defendants who cannot afford an attorney. Dismissals snowballed after the indictments and subsequent acquittals of the officers. By August 2015, 560 convictions had been vacated. The Defender Association had handled 1,138 cases as of April 2020; others have been handled by private attorneys.
Walker testified that he and his fellow officers looked for easy targets, dealers whom he described as “white boys, college-boy types, khaki pants.” That may have been true for the incidents mentioned in the indictment against his former partners, but the overwhelming majority of defendants whose convictions were vacated based on the officers’ misconduct were African-American and Hispanic.
Bradley Bridge, with the Defender Association, said that for cases involving Walker, the potential wrongful convictions likely began in the early 1990s. For the other officers, they started in February 2006, the date named in the federal indictment.
A typical motion for post-conviction relief by the Defender Association notes that the discovery of Walker’s misconduct provided important evidence that undermined the strength of the state’s case and should have been disclosed. “Had counsel known that Officer Walker was a drug dealer, thief and liar who had no compunctions about planting drugs and falsifying police paperwork to justify his actions, counsel would have recommended going to trial instead of a plea.”
Numerous defendants have filed lawsuits in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against Walker, Liciardello, and the other defendants. Most of them, such as the lawsuit filed by Kareem Torain, were pending in April 2020, but several had settled.
The largest settlement to date was for Marcia Hintz, who was wrongfully convicted for possession of a controlled substance. She received $625,000 in 2015. Many other defendants have received far less, in some cases only $15,000.
- Ken Otterbourg
On January 3, 2001 members of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Narcotics Field Unit set up surveillance on several houses in the 5600 block of West Master Street in West Philadelphia. An informant had told the officers that illegal drug activity was taking place there.
The next day, Officer Jeffrey Walker said he saw Kareem Torain leave the properties and drive away in a Bonneville Pontiac. The police followed him to a house on North Conestoga Street, and then to a nearby apartment building on North 55th Street. Just before 3 p.m., Torain left the building and was quickly stopped and arrested. Police found no drugs on him or in the car, but they took a key that they used later that day to enter one of the apartments. A receipt for the items found in the apartment, which included 17 grams of crack cocaine and a safe, was dated January 4, but the search warrant was not approved until January 5.
Torain was charged with possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, a weapons charge, and other related charges. He attempted unsuccessfully to suppress the evidence the officers unconstitutionally seized from the apartment, but Walker and Officer Brian Reynolds testified that the arrest and search were handled properly. Torain chose to have a bench trial, and he was convicted on May 7, 2002 of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, and criminal conspiracy. He was sentenced to a maximum of 22 ½ years in prison.
He appealed his conviction, without success. On June 4, 2012, Torain filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. After Walker was arrested in May 2013, Torain amended his petition, also pro se, to incorporate the officer’s misconduct.
Ultimately, the federal courts declined to take action, deferring to the Pennsylvania courts as the more appropriate venue. On February 28, 2014, Torain’s convictions were reversed and the charges later dismissed and dismissed the charges.
On March 20, 2014, Torain filed a civil-rights lawsuit against Walker, Reynolds, another officer, and the Philadelphia Police Department. It remains pending in April 2020.
On September 22, 2006, Philadelphia police arrested Marcia Hintz at her home in the Tacony neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia and charged her with five drug crimes related to the unauthorized sale of Xanax. Hintz worked a health aide to disabled adults. She also cared for her long-time partner, who had been recently diagnosed with renal failure and relied on Hintz for assistance and transportation to his medical appointments. His medications included Xanax.
Hintz was held in jail for a day before making bond. At a preliminary hearing on August 22, 2007, Officer Thomas Liciardello testified that Hintz sold Xanax to an undercover informant. The judge allowed the case to move forward.
At trial, Liciardello again testified about the informant’s account of the sale. Hintz testified in her own defense, but she was convicted on March 5, 2009 and sentenced to five years in prison. She served just over three years before being released in 2012.
Recalling the trial to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Hintz said the case came down to her work against Liciardello’s. “He was a cop,” she said. “Who are you going to believe?”
Shortly after Liciardello and the other officers in the Narcotics Field Unit were arrested, Hintz petitioned the court for relief, arguing that critical impeachment evidence about the officers had not been turned over. Her conviction was vacated, and the Philadelphia District Attorney dismissed the charges on August 11, 2014.
Hintz filed a civil-rights lawsuit against Liciardello and other officers on February 26, 2015. It was later settled for $625,000.