Acquitted officers won't be thrill show's grand marshals

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Jimmy Binns, part of the legal team that won not-guilty verdicts for the officers this month, announced last week that Officers Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman and John Speiser would be the grand marshals of this year's Hero Thrill Show.

All that Jimmy Binns wanted was to honor the six Philadelphia narcotics officers recently acquitted on federal corruption charges, but by Thursday the colorful defense lawyer and charity-event organizer was reining in his own parade.

Binns, part of the legal team that won not-guilty verdicts for the former officers this month, announced last week that Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman, and John Speiser would be the grand marshals of this year's Hero Thrill Show, an annual charity parade and motorcycle stunt show that raises scholarship money for the children of officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty.

"These heroes have been vilified in the press and it's time that they were recognized as the heroes they are," Binns said in an interview with the legal blog Big Trial, which first reported his plan for the parade.

By Thursday, Binns, who serves as the event's president and CEO, had changed his tune.

Instead, he said that Cathy Burke, owner of the Irish Pub, with locations in Atlantic City and Center City, would headline the October show. Past grand marshals have included Sylvester Stallone, Sen. Robert P. Casey, and Thomas Schomberg, sculptor of the Rocky statue, all of whom have led a procession of motorcycle officers down Broad Street from City Hall to the Wells Fargo Center, where the show is held.

"I just thought that all things considered, it was better to stick with Cathy," Binns said Thursday. He declined to elaborate on what prompted him to change his mind.

But while the officers' supporters praised Binns' effort this week to honor them with the parade, his plan drew its share of criticism from those who, two weeks after the verdict, still question the innocence of squad's members.

"A not-guilty verdict means the prosecution didn't prove its case," tweeted Ed McCann, first assistant at the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, on Thursday. "Doesn't mean you are innocent or owed an apology and a parade in your honor."

In the trial that concluded May 14, federal prosecutors had alleged that Liciardello and his codefendants - all members of an elite police drug unit - carried out their duties like street thugs, routinely roughing up drug suspects, ignoring due process, pocketing seized money, and lying on police reports to cover up their actions.

Nineteen drug suspects and a former squad member testified that targets who put up a fight were dangled over balconies, threatened with the seizure of their homes, held in hotel rooms for days, or beaten while the officers kept score on who could inflict the most punishment.

Defense lawyers balked at these claims, labeling their clients' accusers as "scumbags" and liars, and questioning the thoroughness of the FBI's investigation.

Despite the acquittals, the officers' legal problems remain.

The District Attorney's Office stopped accepting cases from Liciardello and the other members of his squad in 2013 after questions arose over their testimony. Since then, city prosecutors have agreed to throw out nearly 450 drug convictions tied to the squad's investigations.

Public defender Bradley Bridge, who has worked with the District Attorney's Office to review hundreds of those cases, said as many as 75 more cases could be thrown out at a hearing next month.

Others pointed to the dozens of civil suits filed against the officers that could draw them back into federal court. Veteran civil rights lawyer Lawrence Krasner remained bullish on his clients' chances despite the not-guilty verdicts.

"O.J. Simpson enjoyed a controversial acquittal, but he is remembered as a murderer," Krasner said. "Justice sometimes comes in criminal court and sometimes comes in civil court."

And even some in the officers' own camp questioned the wisdom of the officers taking a public victory lap down Broad Street now, considering that each is fighting to win back his job.

Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey suspended them all after their indictment last year and later fired them. Even after their acquittal, he said that he would not support their attempts to return and that they would have to go through civil arbitration if they wanted to rejoin the force.

Still, John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge, maintained that Liciardello and his former colleagues had been mistreated.

"We hope to be able to secure some dates quick and hope to put these guys back to work," he said. "There's rapists, there's murderers, there's bad people on the street, and from day one these guys have said they have done nothing wrong."


jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-854-2608@jeremyrroebuck