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Lawyers clash in closings in police corruption trial

Lawyers on both sides of the federal corruption trial of six members of an elite Philadelphia Police Department narcotics squad finally found on Tuesday - the day they began their closing arguments - a point on which they could agree:

Lawyers on both sides of the federal corruption trial of six members of an elite Philadelphia Police Department narcotics squad finally found on Tuesday - the day they began their closing arguments - a point on which they could agree:

The decision in this case, they told jurors, should be easy.

It would be "absurd," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Maureen McCartney, to believe that a disgraced former police officer and 19 drug suspects independently came up with the same detailed lies about a series of police abuses.

"They said shockingly similar things, and there's only one reasonable explanation for that," she said. "These threats, the abuse, the robberies - they happened. Any other explanation at all defies all logic and reason."

It would violate your oath as jurors, defense lawyer Jack McMahon countered, to blindly accept the word of those drug dealers and one dishonored ex-officer - a man who admitted he had repeatedly perjured himself and sent innocent men to prison in the past.

"Is it reasonable to doubt the word of immoral, despicable people?" he asked. "If you don't have reason to doubt, then you haven't been listening."

In between, the two sides laid out starkly different versions of six weeks of testimony, as a jury of six men and six women prepared to find out just how easy their decision will be.

Prosecutors have alleged that Officers Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman, and John Speiser conducted their jobs like street thugs for years, roughing up suspects, ignoring due process, planting drugs, pocketing seized cash, and lying on police reports to cover up their crimes.

"They abused their power in the most egregious way," McCartney said. "They made their own rules. They believed they were above the law."

And in her last chance to address the panel, she reminded jurors how the government built its case.

In 2013, an FBI sting caught one of the squad members, Jeffrey Walker, planting drugs on a suspect and later robbing the man's house. He pleaded guilty last year and quickly agreed to turn on his former colleagues.

He flagged dozens of cases in which he said he and his squad committed crimes. Those in which the drug suspects independently told a story similar to Walker's made it into the government's 26-count indictment in the case.

They included the tale of Overbrook pot dealer Michael Cascioli, who said officers threatened to throw him over a high-rise balcony if he refused to cooperate with their investigation, and that of Rodolfo Javier Blanco, a Frankford barber who said officers stole $12,000 he earned from selling a van and held him hostage for days in an airport motel room.

The stories told by many of the drug suspects overlapped with each other, McCartney said.

Many said the narcotics officers searched their houses before obtaining warrants. Two suspects said that the officers took their money to order pizza for the squad while they conducted their searches.

And nearly all alleged that the group had violated various Police Department policies requiring plainclothes officers to wear gear such as badges and police vests, identify themselves as officers, and avoid pulling over cars without the assistance of a squad car.

McMahon, however, rejected that last set of allegations as a "red herring."

"This is not a policy hearing on which regulation was violated," he said. "These are not 9-to-5 cops pushing papers, doing policy. They are the guys out there on the streets, doing what needs to be done."

He dismissed the allegations of the drug suspects outright, and questioned how jurors could believe testimony such as that offered by one government witness, who admitted the $14,000 he had accused officers of stealing was money he hid to avoid paying child support, or that of Blanco, who could provide no evidence that he had sold his van.

Blanco's being held in a motel room was approved by the defendants' supervisor, McMahon added.

As for Walker, McMahon repeatedly emphasized the ex-officer's admission that he had lied in court in past drug cases - a streak, the lawyer contended, that continued in his shifting stories over 47 meetings with FBI agents.

But McMahon saved his greatest derision for federal authorities, whose investigation he described as "bogus, filthy," and "ridiculous."

"This is a case where the justice system and investigators have run amok," he said. "What the government has done in this case should be shocking to all of us.

Investigators failed, he said, to seek corroboration such as bank records or sales receipts that would verify the stories of their witnesses.

They made mistakes such as charging Reynolds with involvement in one purported crime without realizing he was vacationing out of state at the time. (That charge has been withdrawn.)

And, said McMahon, agents didn't bother to interview the squad's supervisors until after charges were filed. Several later testified as defense witnesses, and said they were present with the squad on drug raids and never saw anything untoward occur.

Prosecutors have said they held off on meeting with police top brass because they didn't know at the time just who might end up on their indictment.

McCartney discounted testimony from the squad's direct supervisors, Sgt. Joe McCloskey and Lt. Robert Otto, as "convenient but not credible."

Both were willing to look the other way, McCartney suggested, because Liciardello's squad routinely brought in big hauls of seized money and drugs that made an impression all the way up the department's chain of command.

"The bottom line," she said, is "they made their bosses look good, and when the bosses look good, everybody's happy."

Closing arguments are expected to continue Wednesday.