Published: May 6, 2015 — 6:41 PM EDT | Updated: May 7, 2015 — 1:08 AM EDT
The Philadelphia Inquirer
by Jeremy Roebuck, Inquirer Staff Writer
The federal corruption case against six members of an elite Philadelphia police narcotics squad will head to a jury Thursday, after a second day of closing arguments in which the defense team lauded its clients as heroes and likened the officers’ accusers to “a freak show to end all.”
Their speeches Wednesday ranged from indignant jeremiads – condemning the FBI for an “unconscionable” investigation – to sentimental paeans extolling the bravery of the indicted investigators as men who, as lawyer Jeffrey Miller put it, risked their lives daily to stop “people peddling poison for profit.”
Falling somewhere in between was Officer Michael Spicer’s lawyer, James Binns.
His 30-minute address rambled through references to Sir Walter Scott, the Sermon on the Mount, 16th-century war tactics, the entire plot of Hamlet, and even a passing mention of a mule passing gas – yet managed by its end to leave the officers’ families, Binns’ client, and the squad’s burly supervisor, Lt. Robert Otto, wiping away tears.
“Children of God,” Binns said, pointing to Spicer and his codefendants. “They are heroes. They are saving our children and grandchildren from this terrible scourge that our city has been besieged by.”
Prosecutors took their own parting shots, urging jurors to ignore histrionics and remember the 19 drug suspects who told “shockingly similar stories” over six weeks of testimony.
Each alleged that Spicer and fellow Officers Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman, and John Speiser routinely roughed them up, ignored due process, pocketed seized money, and lied on police reports to cover up their crimes.
But the bulk of the day belonged to the defense, which in more than four hours of speeches floated alternate theories to answer the central conundrum posed by prosecutors in the case – how to account for money the drug suspects alleged was missing after their encounters with the squad.
One obvious answer, said Miller, Liciardello’s lawyer, was that all of it was taken by Jeffrey Walker, a disgraced former officer and the government’s star witness in the case.
Prosecutors have described several times how Walker helped build their case. He identified investigations in which he and his fellow squad members broke the law.
Those that were included in the indictment against Liciardello and the others were ones in which the drug suspects independently told stories similar to Walker’s.
But, Miller said, the drug suspects’ corroboration of Walker’s story only went so far. They, like Walker, said money went missing. Only Walker said the cash was shared among the squad.
Wouldn’t the simpler answer be, Miller proposed, that Walker stole the money on his own and is trying to spread around the blame?
“The only person you can connect to the money over and over and over is the admitted thief,” Miller said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzorek scoffed at such speculation.
Walker was skimming off of job after job, and “these men, who have been described as the best investigative squad in the city, couldn’t see that?” he asked. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Others from the defense team questioned whether the funds that purportedly went missing ever existed.
How, Miller asked, could drug suspect Rodolfo Javier Blanco claim officers took $12,000 he earned from selling his van, when police reports say the vehicle was parked outside his Frankford apartment during the drug squad’s raid?
Betts’ lawyer, Gregory Pagano, argued that the potential for large civil judgments gave the officers’ accusers another incentive to lie. Scores of lawsuits have been filed against Liciardello and his codefendants by suspects they had a hand in arresting, including five who testified for the government in the criminal case.
“The worst of the worst have turned the tables on these men and have turned our system of justice on its head,” Pagano said. “This is the good guys vs. the bad guys here – make no mistake about it.”
And that, said Speiser’s lawyer, Michael Diamondstein, is patently unfair. His impassioned defense of his client – who he said had his life destroyed, thanks only to scant ties to two of the purportedly dirty cases – had one juror in tears.
“I stood up for a hero,” Diamondstein said. “I stood up for a man who has stood up for me and stood up for all of you.”
As he closed out the day, Wzorek responded.
“There’s nothing heroic about what these men did,” he said. “What they did is an affront to every honest police officer in this city. It’s a disgrace.”