Judge Reverses 58 Drug Squad Convictions, Over 1,000 Yet to be Decided

Philadelphia Police narcotics officer Thomas Liciardello, left emerges from Federal Court on Thursday, May 14, 2015. ( Michael Bryant / Photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer)

Philadelphia Police narcotics officer Thomas Liciardello, left emerges from Federal Court on Thursday, May 14, 2015. ( Michael Bryant / Photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer)

PHILADELPHIA — A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge on Friday reversed 58 convictions tied to an embattled ex-narcotics officer and his squad.

The overturned cases, linked to six former Philadelphia narcotics officers acquitted of federal corruption charges in May, are the latest to be reversed. They amount to a fraction of the convictions being challenged by the Public Defender’s Office.

Friday’s rulings by Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper also marked the first time cases of alleged drug dealers and users were reversed en masse since the squad, led by Thomas Liciardello, was cleared by a jury of criminal wrongdoing.

Despite the officers’ victory in federal court, public defender Bradley S. Bridge has not backed off efforts to free hundreds of people he believes were wrongly convicted.

“The reason is clear,” he said. The evidence is “quite sufficient to raise doubts about the legitimacy of convictions.”

The scandal has already left the city facing 135 civil rights lawsuits.

To date, the Public Defender’s Office has filed paperwork to seek reversals of 1,370 cases linked to arrests by the six officers when they were high performers in the Narcotics Field Unit.

Including Friday’s rulings, 234 convictions were vacated and all charges dismissed for arrests made by Officers Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman, and John Speiser.

An additional 78 convictions have been allowed to stand because it was determined that critical evidence was collected prior to the officers’ alleged corruption, or that the officers did not play key roles in those arrests.

The courts have ruled on less than a quarter of the controversial cases. An additional 1,058 convictions are yet to be decided based on what the Public Defender’s Office believes were tainted drug busts.

Beginning in 2013, the District Attorney’s Office refused to prosecute cases tied to the elite squad of officers after numerous allegations arose that they planted evidence, doctored paperwork, and beat and robbed suspects.

Prosecutors have worked closely with Bridge for months to identify people convicted in large part on testimony given by the former narcotics officers.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Cameron Kline, spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office.

Such a large-scale review of thousands of cases of alleged police corruption has set a precedent for Philadelphia.

“There’s no one that has ever done this, to my knowledge, anywhere in the United States,” Bridge said.

Some allegations against Liciardello and his colleagues came from another former narcotics officer, Jeffrey Walker, who was arrested in 2013 and pleaded guilty to separate federal corruption charges. Walker took the stand against the six former officers at their trial.

Bridge said 167 convictions tied to Walker have been overturned and 44 petitions, known as PCRAs, were filed last week based on Walker’s testimony over three days on the stand in the federal trial. A court date has not been set to review those cases.

Hundreds of additional convictions linked to another former narcotics officer are in jeopardy. Bridge said his office would seek to reverse cases tied to Christopher Hulmes, who was a 19-year member of the force when arrested in April and charged with perjury and tampering with public records. Late this week, Bridge said, he filed paperwork to overturn 250 drug-related cases and expects to reach roughly 600.

The Hulmes convictions under challenge are unrelated to the Liciardello squad. Hulmes admitted under oath in 2011 that he falsified paperwork in a drug arrest. His case continues Monday in Municipal Court.

Inside the Criminal Justice Center on Friday, in Courtroom 504, once-successful convictions that took months to plan and win with help from Liciardello and his squad were undone in seconds as prosecutors asked for their dismissals.

As a result, some people still serving time may walk free.

Written by Dylan Purcell for the Philadelphia Inquirer