The drug convictions of 26 more people - three-quarters of whom are behind bars, serving prison terms - were challenged yesterday by Philadelphia's public defender on the grounds that all were tainted by false information from veteran narcotics officer Jeffrey Cujdik and his paid confidential informant.
Together with 24 petitions filed on April 3 and three on Wednesday, yesterday's filings bring to 53 the number of people whose convictions could be dismissed.
The new Common Pleas Court filings, like the earlier petitions, are based on allegations by Cujdik's former paid informant, Ventura "Benny" Martinez. Martinez, in a Feb. 9 interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, said he and Cujdik often falsified information to persuade judges to sign search and arrest warrants for drug suspects.
Had information about the alleged conduct by Cujdik and Martinez been known, Assistant Public Defender Bradley S. Bridge argued in court papers, the defendants would have been acquitted or would have decided not to plead guilty.
Bridge said the fact that all the petitions resulted from Martinez's allegations that he and Cujdik lied "raises important questions about the entire process of utilizing confidential informants, and demonstrates yet again the critical role the courts have in acting as a check on such abuses."
Arguing for new trials, Bridge said "the untenable alternative is that an innocent man would continue to be in state prison and on state parole for several more years."
The District Attorney's Office has in two filings argued that it is premature to take any action involving the convictions of those arrested through the work of Cujdik and Martinez.
Nothing should be done, the prosecutor has argued, until the results of investigations by the city and FBI are known.
Cujdik, 34, a 12-year veteran, has surrendered his service weapon and since late January has been assigned to desk duty. He is the only member of the Narcotics Field Unit police officials have reassigned.
Cujdik has not commented publicly on the allegations made by Martinez - with whom he worked building drug cases for almost eight years - but he has been backed by Philadelphia's Lodge 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police. Cujdik's attorney, George Bochetto, has called Martinez a career criminal and a liar who incriminated Cujdik out of anger.
Of the 26 cases filed yesterday, most involved arrests occurring between 2003 and 2005. Two-thirds of the defendants were men and almost 70 percent were Latino. Most had prior encounters with the justice system. The arrests were in Kensington and North Philadelphia.
For some, such as Tammy Michenselder, 31, who was arrested Aug. 17, 2005, the arrest and conviction was her first and only. Michenselder pleaded guilty in January 2006 to conspiracy and possession with intent to deliver, and was sentenced to six months' house arrest and two years' probation.
Others, such as Wilfredo Baez, 46, arrested Nov. 4, 2005, and charged with drug and gun crimes, had longer records that resulted in longer prison terms. Baez pleaded guilty and was sentenced in August to 31/2 to 10 years in prison. He is serving that sentence at the state prison at Laurel Highlands in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Now those 26 convictions are in play, and common to all is the defender's contention that none of the defendants should have been arrested because Cujdik's search warrants were bogus.
Bridge filed his first 24 petitions on April 3 under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act, a secondary appeal law that allows a judge to reopen a criminal case based on evidence discovered after conviction that could call a guilty verdict or plea into question.
Bridge said that yesterday's filings are likely the last based on Martinez's allegations in the Feb. 9 article. Bridge said state law requires that petitions based on after-discovered evidence be filed within 60 days of the date the information becomes known to the defense attorney.
None of the petitions is likely to result in immediate legal action. The District Attorney's Office must formally respond to each. Then the court must decide how to handle the 26 cases: assign one judge to hear all, or send them back to the original sentencing judges.
Cujdik's hugely productive relationship with Martinez, 47, came undone in October when Martinez's identity was disclosed in court by the lawyer and investigator for a defendant whose criminal case the informant helped Cujdik develop.
Martinez was also photographed leaving a Kensington rowhouse owned by Cujdik and leased to a woman who was the informant's girlfriend and mother of two of his children.
Martinez said he went to the newspaper after his requests for protection and relocation were rebuffed by authorities.