Six members of an elite Philadelphia narcotics squad were acquitted Thursday of federal corruption charges - a verdict the men described as "vindication" after nearly a decade of federal scrutiny surrounding their conduct.
A jury of six men and six women took 51/2 days to reject prosecutors' arguments that former Officers Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman, and John Speiser routinely beat and robbed drug suspects during their time as members of the Narcotics Field Unit.
Defense lawyers said the decision represented a significant rebuke to allegations that have prompted dozens of civil rights lawsuits, the reversal of nearly 450 drug convictions tied to the squad's investigations, and a quick condemnation from Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who described the case at its outset last year as "one of the worst cases of corruption I have ever heard."
As the foreman read out one "not guilty" after another in court, Liciardello could not contain his relief. He alternated between moments of quiet sobbing and composure, while family members of the other officers clutched one another in tears from seats in the gallery.
"I just want to thank the jury. They believed in us," Liciardello, 38, said as he was released hours later from nine months in federal custody. He was greeted by an impromptu celebration outside the courthouse.
Officers and their supporters exchanged hugs, and drivers honked their horns in support on Market Street. Norman waved a small Bible he had kept in his breast pocket throughout the trial and chanted, "To God be the glory."
Attorney Jack McMahon - who led the defense team throughout the case, often with a snarl and thinly veiled disgust for the accusers of his client, Reynolds - had sharp words for federal prosecutors and the FBI. He called their case "incompetent" and a "travesty," but he reserved his harshest judgment for Ramsey.
"The commissioner of our city owes these guys an apology," McMahon said. "When he says to these men that their badges should be burned and this is the worst case he's seen, when he didn't even know the facts, he is not a commissioner of these men. That's not a leader of men, and he should apologize to them."
Ramsey, however, was not inclined to make amends. He said that he would not support any attempt the officers make to rejoin the force and that they would have to go through arbitration to get their jobs back.
"He's correct in that I'm not their commissioner right now," he said in response to McMahon's statements. "They're no longer police officers."
U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger stood by his office's case.
"We are disappointed, but respect the jury's decision," he said in a statement. "We will not be deterred from prosecuting cases of police corruption."
Through six weeks of testimony, prosecutors pitted the words of 19 drug suspects against those of the indicted officers.
Government witnesses repeatedly described squad members conducting their duties like street thugs. They accused the officers of employing gang-like tactics, such as roughing up drug suspects, ignoring due process, planting evidence, pocketing seized money, and lying on police reports to cover up their crimes.
Targets who put up a fight, they said, were dangled over balconies, threatened with the seizure of their homes, held in hotel rooms for days, or beaten as the officers kept score on who could inflict the most debilitating injuries.
Prosecutors alleged that top brass never asked too many questions, because the squad was one of the most productive on the force, often raking in large hauls of seized money and drugs. They described the squad's direct supervisors - Sgt. Joseph McCloskey and Lt. Robert Otto - as at best unwitting dupes of their rogue employees, or at worst complicit in the group's crimes.
"I'm not worried about that," McCloskey said after the verdict. "I did my job. Justice was served."
Otto, who greeted each of his former officers with bear hugs as they left the courthouse, declined to comment.
Lawyers for the indicted officers criticized the FBI for not interviewing police supervisors before bringing charges against their clients, and accused prosecutors of gullibility in basing their case solely on the word of drug suspects and former Officer Jeffrey Walker.
Walker, who pleaded guilty in a separate corruption case last year, testified against his former squad mates, implicating them in dozens of crimes during three days on the witness stand this month.
He admitted he had stolen thousands of dollars over his career, and in at least 15 cases had offered perjured testimony in court that had sent innocent men to prison. And he maintained that Liciardello and his other indicted former colleagues were just as bad.
Walker's testimony formed the backbone of the government's case. After his arrest in 2013, he flagged several drug investigations in which he alleged that the squad had committed crimes.
Federal authorities included those cases in which the drug suspects' recollections independently matched Walker's in their indictment against Liciardello and his codefendants.
Jurors declined to explain their decision as they were escorted from the courthouse. But alternate juror Tim Hummell, who sat through the trial but did not participate in deliberations, said he didn't believe the government had offered enough evidence to convict.
"These guys have a tough job," said Hummell, 54, of Harleysville. "The prosecutors were just nitpicking on paperwork."
Of Walker, he added: "It was hard to believe a word he said, because of all the lying."
What Thursday's verdict could mean for the future of Liciardello and his codefendants remains uncertain. Within days of their arrest last year, Ramsey suspended them all and later fired them.
For years, federal and city prosecutors had refused to take cases involving some of the six, saying frequent complaints lodged against them undermined their credibility in court.
Records show that the FBI investigated the squad at least twice previously - in 2005 and 2007 - without bringing charges.
And more than 14 Internal Affairs complaints against Liciardello and Reynolds alleged illegal searches or false arrests, but nearly all were found to be unsubstantiated.
After the verdict, only Liciardello and Speiser said definitively they would seek to return to the force. One defense lawyer said he believed they stood a good chance.
"The things that were said about these honorable men and police officers over the last eight to 10 months were ridiculous," said Michael Diamondstein, Speiser's lawyer. "A lot of people in this city owe these heroes an apology."