Phila. judge overturns 158 convictions tied to rogue narcotics cops

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Jeffrey Walker pleaded guilty to separate federal corruption charges and testified against his former colleagues at trial. Walker was sentenced last month to 3 1/2 years in prison by a federal judge who credited his cooperation with prosecutors.

A Philadelphia judge on Friday reversed 158 narcotics convictions tainted by allegations of police corruption - the largest such dismissal in one day in city history.

The rulings by Common Pleas Court President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper were the latest fallout from the federal prosecution of seven police narcotics officers.

The officers - Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman, and John Speiser - were acquitted of all charges at a federal trial in May.

A seventh officer, Jeffrey Walker, pleaded guilty to separate federal corruption charges and testified against his former colleagues at trial. Walker was sentenced last month to 31/2 years in prison by a federal judge who credited his cooperation with prosecutors.

The officers Walker testified against got their jobs back after they were acquitted, but police officials announced Thursday that one, Betts, will be suspended with intent to dismiss after testing positive for using marijuana.

Despite the outcome of the federal trial, the reexamination by the Defender Association of Philadelphia and the District Attorney's Office of the integrity of hundreds of arrests in which the seven were involved continues.

Public defender Bradley S. Bridge estimated that Friday's total brings to 560 the convictions involving the seven officers that have been vacated since they were indicted by a federal grand jury in July 2014.

More are on the way.

Woods-Skipper set another hearing for Oct. 30, at which an additional 40 convictions are expected to be reversed. And Bridge estimated that his office has finished reviewing only 40 percent of convictions involving the six acquitted officers.

"We are continuing these evaluations, and, to his credit, the district attorney is saying that evidence in these cases where the officers were significantly involved are not justified," Bridge said.

Assistant District Attorney Robin Godfrey said her office's consent to the case evaluations and reversals "is not a question of guilt or innocence. We are not agreeing in these cases that the defendants are innocent. The district attorney is just exercising his discretion to grant relief."

Beginning in 2013 - a year before the federal indictment - the District Attorney's Office refused to prosecute cases tied to the elite squad of officers after numerous allegations that they planted evidence, doctored paperwork, and beat and robbed suspects.

The convictions reversed thus far overshadow previous police corruption scandals. The 39th District scandal - a rogue group of four narcotics officers convicted in the mid-1990s for preying on drug dealers - led to 162 overturned convictions.

More than 135 civil rights lawsuits have been filed against the city as a result of cases involving the seven narcotics officers.

Bridge said two people whose convictions were reversed Friday are still in prison, 20 more are on state parole, and another 40 on probation. Those in prison will be freed, and the others will have their probation or parole lifted.

One person in court for the hearings seemed unable to believe what happened and went up to question court personnel several times before leaving a free man.

Woods-Skipper also ordered all fines and court costs paid be returned to the 158 people whose convictions were vacated.

Friday's rulings came too late for some. Mary Godleski, who was arrested by Liciardello on Sept. 13, 2006, pleaded guilty a year later to drug charges and was sentenced to six months in prison.

Godleski died Aug. 3, 2009 at age 55, according to Social Security records.


jslobodzian@phillynews.com

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