Justice is rarely pure. It often requires that someone be wronged, victim or defendant alike. As a public defender for 13 years in Baltimore, I know.
One of my clients, Ivan Potts, endured 589 days of incarceration before he got justice. I represented Potts in a gun-possession case involving three of seven recently federally indicted and jailed Baltimore Police Department officers.
In March 2016, a jury convicted Potts, and a judge sentenced him to eight years. Several weeks ago, Potts came back to Baltimore City Circuit Court, where his conviction was undone and the state dismissed his case.
Potts’s ordeal began on Sept. 2, 2015. He was walking to a store in the West Forest Park area of Baltimore when several plainclothes officers arrested him, injuring his leg with a baton strike.
Those officers were members of the now disbanded Baltimore Police Department Gun Trace Task Force. They had a different interpretation of the events. Detectives Evodio Hendrix and Maurice Ward and Sgt. Wayne Jenkins described Potts as “displaying the characteristics of an armed person,” a phrase that appears in many gun case narratives and that I no longer believe means anything. Potts supposedly pulled the weapon out, eyed the officers and ran. After a short chase, Potts surrendered but had no weapon. The cops retraced Potts’s route and found a handgun. The task force said Potts injured himself on a fence while fleeing. He was jailed without bail, charged with illegal gun possession.
We went to trial in March 2016. Potts is a felon, which meant instead of a misdemeanor with a possible three-year sentence, he was facing up to 15 years (with the first five years to be served without parole as a mandatory sentence). The only plea offered included jail time, but Potts was and is adamant about his innocence.
At trial, we attacked the officers’ stories. Additionally, we called two witnesses: a friend who also disputed the gun possession and the BPD transport officer who distanced himself from the official police version of Potts’s injury, suggesting something was amiss. Ironically, though, in a handgun trial, I lacked the ammunition needed to attack these officers, who now sit in jail cells.
My client privately suggested that these detectives routinely violated people’s rights. I sought the records of others in their unit to no avail because of multi-layered systemic protections from the state, city lawyers and judges that limit access to personnel files. I had nothing to go on. We chose to not have Potts testify for fear of the jury hearing of his prior conviction.
Verdicts and sentences from trials are very difficult to change despite what might seem like obvious new circumstances or reasons of fairness.
Immediately after our trial, I filed a motion for a new trial, because a new witness contacted me after the case concluded. The motion also included a “catch-all” request in case anything else supporting our defense arose. The motion sat with the judge, without a ruling. Meanwhile, Potts pursued an appeal with an appellate attorney from my office but lost. Potts also filed his own federal civil suit against the officers from prison (we can’t take civil cases as public defenders); that suit is pending.
On Feb. 23, our opportunity to get back to court popped up. Seven officers in the task force, including our three, had been federally charged with racketeering and accused of robbing people, extorting drug dealers and filing false reports. The state was dismissing pending cases involving the task force, which seemed like a no-brainer. But would it retroactively review cases?
Potts didn’t want to wait, so we petitioned for a new trial hearing on March 7. The state agreed after a couple of weeks to essentially undo the trial verdict and to dismiss the case if the judge approved. On April 12, in a short but clumsy hearing, we got it done. The conviction was nullified, and the state dropped the case. To add insult, the Department of Corrections held Potts an extra day on a bogus detainer. It may have been longer were it not for the media attention surrounding his release.
Potts lost 589 days of his life, two of his daughter’s birthdays, 20 months of work and his faith in the system to get his piece of justice. Now, we can only wait and see what happens to the officers.
The writer is a lawyer in the Baltimore City public defender’s office.
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