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Baltimore police officers found guilty of racketeering and robbery

Baltimore police officers found guilty of racketeering and robbery
Federal prosecutors speak to the media after a guilty verdict in the trial of two Baltimore detectives. (Baltimore Sun)

A jury convicted two Baltimore police detectives Monday for their roles in one of the biggest police corruption scandals in recent memory.

Daniel T. Hersl, 48, and Marcus R. Taylor, 31, were found guilty of racketeering conspiracy, racketeering and robbery. Prosecutors said they and other members of the city's Gun Trace Task Force had acted as "both cops and robbers," using the power of their badges to steal large sums of money from residents under the guise of police work.

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"Their business model was that the people that they were robbing had no recourse — who were they going to go to? That's what [the officers] were counting on," Acting U.S. Atty. Stephen Schenning said after the verdict.

Hersl and Taylor both face maximum sentences of 60 years in prison.

Jurors deliberated for about 12 hours, handing down their verdict about 5:30 p.m., just minutes after asking for additional time instead of being sent home for the night.

In a case where the officers' victims were black men, the jury of mostly white women elected a young black man to deliver the verdict.

Hersl and Taylor were both acquitted on the count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, which carried a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.

During the trial, federal prosecutors Leo Wise and Derek Hines depicted a unit "willing to do whatever it took to lie, cheat and steal," Hines said in closing arguments. Four officers who had previously pleaded guilty in the case took the stand and testified for the government, identifying Hersl and Taylor has part of a crew that had a tacit agreement to take money and split it up. They also covered for each other as they took thousands of dollars in unearned overtime pay.

The crimes were daring: Taylor was accused of taking part in a robbery of more than $100,000, in which police handcuffed a man, took his house keys and broke into a safe in his basement. Prosecutors said Taylor filmed a video — which was played for jurors — purporting to show the officers breaking into the safe, after they had already stolen half the amount of money that was originally inside.

Hersl, meanwhile, was charged with taking part in a robbery in which $20,000 was stolen from a Carroll County home after a man and his wife were detained without having committed a crime. Other officers testified that Hersl was among a group that split up the money at a bar afterward.

Acting Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa said in a statement following the verdict that the department is moving to terminate the employment of Hersl and Taylor, who have both been on unpaid leave since their indictment in March. The other six officers have already been terminated.

"We recognize that this indictment and subsequent trial uncovered some of the most egregious and despicable acts ever perpetrated in law enforcement," De Sousa said.

De Sousa noted the department had created a corruption unit "that will focus, specifically, on this case and the allegations that were made, but were not part of the indictment or prosecution." During the trial, witnesses — including some of the officers who pleaded guilty in the case — testified to wrongdoing by a dozen other officers who have not been charged.

"Let me make it clear: I have ZERO TOLERANCE for corruption," De Sousa said in his statement.

The convicted officers join six of their former colleagues who previously pleaded guilty in the case. Three other men, including a bail bondsman who was supplied drugs by the unit's supervisor, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, have also pleaded guilty. A Philadelphia police officer accused of conspiring with some of the officers is pending trial.

Hersl, who often looked back at family members throughout the trial, lowered his head into clasped hands as the first guilty count was read.

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His attorney, William Purpura, had conceded that Hersl took money but said it should be viewed as theft, not robbery or extortion. He said as a law enforcement officer, Hersl was authorized to seize money if he believed he had probable cause, and that any money later pocketed was theft or receiving stolen goods.

"We hope the court, after hearing three weeks of testimony, can place Dan Hersl where he belongs, with relative culpability as compared to the other defendants in this particular case," Purpura told reporters outside the courthouse.

Hersl's older brother, Steve, sobbed against a railing outside the courthouse, then defended his brother to reporters. He said Dan Hersl had told family members he wanted out of the unit.

"Danny Hersl was not a monster. He was put in with some monsters, but he wasn't one of them. He wasn't a part of this group, and I am 100% positive of that," Steve Hersl said.

Taylor showed little emotion throughout the trial, and was stoic as the verdict was read. His family and attorneys left without commenting.

Federal prosecutors said their investigation was ongoing, though they would not say whether additional indictments were expected. The cooperating defendant officers named additional officers they say they stole money with in the past, which defense attorneys elicited from the witness stand during cross-examinations.

Schenning, the acting U.S. attorney, said prosecutors would only reveal information provided to them if it results in federal charges.

Police have said they are forming a unit to look into allegations that arose during the trial, including the names of several officers who the convicted officers said were involved in taking money or other misconduct.

"We get a lot of information. We get a lot of names," Schenning said. "We investigate those people and we try to find evidence. When we have enough evidence and we submit it to a grand jury and they indict, we'll tell you who we indicted."

Hersl and Taylor both opted not to take the stand, and their attorneys argued the government had failed to prove the case and relied on questionable witnesses.

The case prompted the police department to disband plainclothes units and put those officers into uniform, though DeSousa says he is rethinking that decision. The agency has also said it will implement a fingerprint scanning technology for time sheets, and will start ordering random polygraph tests on members of specialized units.

Prosecutors, at last count in early December, said they had dropped or vacated convictions in 125 cases that involved the officers; the public defender's office says thousands of cases are compromised after some officers admitted to lying and stealing for the past decade. The State's Attorney's Office has not provided updated figures.

Justin Fenton writes for the Baltimore Sun.

Sun reporters Jean Marbella, Kevin Rector and Tim Prudente contributed to this report.

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