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Bad-cops cases may free some convicts

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ST. LOUIS • Just before disgraced former city police Officer Bobby Lee Garrett was sentenced to federal prison last year, he and his lawyer said he should not be judged by the recent crimes.

"Bobby Garrett also had a 20-year career," lawyer Chet Pleban said, during which he battled criminals "terrorizing the citizens of the St. Louis metropolitan area."

The lawyer may have spoken too soon.

St. Louis prosecutors are now preparing to unlock prison doors on some of the people put there by Garrett and at least six other former or current officers whose credibility has been damaged by criminal charges or allegations of misconduct.

But it appears that Missouri prison doors will swing more freely than federal prison doors.

This is a new phase of the review that began months before Pleban's comments. Early last year, the St. Louis circuit attorney and U.S. attorney were starting to drop pending state and federal cases that depended on tainted officers' testimony.

Now the issue is what to do about convictions obtained when the officers were considered trustworthy.

Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce has vowed to dismiss convictions that could not have been prosecuted without the testimony or evidence produced by those officers - regardless of whether the defendants were convicted at trial or pleaded guilty.

Federal prosecutors, however, are applying a stricter standard.

"We are not making a blanket decision to dismiss historic cases," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Crowe, who is conducting the review. "If someone pleads guilty to possessing illegal drugs, you're hard-pressed to cut them loose."

Defense attorney Joel Schwartz said the federal approach is wrong.

"To me, it's not a matter of guilt and innocence," he said. "To me, it's a matter of how the system needs to be run and should be run."

St. Louis District Defender Mary Fox wants the review expanded to all cases handled by the now-disbanded Crime Suppression Unit, where some of the officers had worked.

Joyce's office already has dismissed dozens of pending cases, and federal prosecutors dropped a few.

OFFICERS UNDER SUSPICION

Joyce's current review was triggered by the indictment of Garrett and his partner, Vincent Carr, more than a year ago on charges that they stole money and drugs, planted evidence and arrested an innocent man (who was not prosecuted).

At the time, Joyce and then-U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway said the indictments put more than 1,000 cases in doubt.

Since then, more officers' names have been added to the list, either through federal indictments or other credibility issues.

Garrett, Carr and another of Garrett's former partners, Leo Liston, have pleaded guilty to federal charges. Three more officers have been accused of lying on search warrants or about confidential informers. Two of them retired, all deny the accusations, and none has been charged.

Still another officer faces a state perjury charge for allegedly lying on a police report; another officer was recently acquitted of two misdemeanor charges connected to a police report.

Joyce's staff has been too busy looking at their old cases to say how many are now under review.

She said prosecutors are not legally bound to make the effort. But if they don't, some defendants may have no recourse. They can try to use the officers' credibility problems in filing appeals, but some may hit procedural roadblocks or have difficulty affording lawyers.

"I applaud her," said Washington University law professor Peter Joy. "If that's what's shes going to do, then that's really a commitment to making sure that no one's been wrongfully convicted."

A MATTER OF DISCRETION

Four federal cases were declined before charges were filed. Roughly 58 convictions are being reviewed. Only one person has received a break so far.

Last month, the prison sentence of Corey "C-Murder" Cox dropped to 168 months from 188 months after prosecutors dismissed two drug charges against him because of evidence problems linked to Garrett.

Crowe said investigators received "specific information ... that the seizure did not occur as we thought it did." He said a remaining drug charge was not connected to Garrett and was supported by other evidence. Cox had pleaded guilty of all three.

Crowe said prosecutors are looking "very carefully" at cases that defendants fought at trial. A key issue is whether the defense had challenged the evidence or testimony.

"We would not necessarily just dismiss," Crowe said.

"The bottom line is, on most of these guys, they had the dope. They can look in the mirror and curse Bobby Garrett all they want," Crowe said.

Asked whether it was legally problematic to have two different standards applied by prosecutors, Crowe said no. "That's prosecutorial discretion. They decide how they're going to run their office," he said.

"Look, these are judgment calls," he added. "We're making a somewhat different judgment call."

While the justice system needs credibility, Crowe said, it also needs finality - an end to what could be endless rounds of appeals.

"We're troubled by this, too," said Crowe. But he cautioned, "Not everything Bobby Garrett touched is bad."

THE DEFENSE COMPLAINS

No convictions have been overturned, and some defense lawyers are skeptical whether Joyce will follow through.

"That hasn't happened in my case," said Schwartz, who represents a client named Chester Wilson in a Garrett-and-Carr related case. "All they had was Garrett and Carr. Without them, there's no case."

At Wilson's plea hearing in May 2008, prosecutors claimed there was no current, active investigation against his accusers, and so Wilson went ahead with a guilty plea. He received probation for the drug charge.

Schwartz has moved to withdraw that plea, saying Wilson would not have agreed to it had he known the officers were being investigated.

Joy, the law professor, said he can understand a prosecutor's reluctance to overturn a guilty plea.

"When the person entered the guilty plea, that should be the end of the matter. They had to weigh whether or not they were guilty in doing that," he said.

"They call a confession or an admission of guilt the "queen of evidence" because it's a really, really good indication of guilt," he said.

But a dishonest investigator could build such a stack of false evidence that even the innocent would buckle. Joy acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that an innocent defendant might choose a plea bargain rather than risk losing at trial and being handed a higher sentence.

But in cases that went to trial, if the juries did not know about the theft of money by police officers, Joy said, "In my opinion, those convictions are bad."

"If you believe in democracy ... if you believe in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, you have to say there's a line that's very clear and the government can't cross over that line."

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In 2009, St. Louis Officer Vincent T. Carr was indicted on charges that claimed he planted evidence and stole money in other drug cases. Carr …

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