The investigation of a group of Philadelphia police narcotics officers has not proved to be the quick pass out of prison for those whose convictions are being challenged.
With inmates present via a two-way telecast from the courtroom and six prisons across Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper yesterday denied motions for bail pending results of the probe of Officer Jeffrey Cujdik.
All nine cases considered during yesterday's hearing at the Criminal Justice Center were among those Cujdik's former confidential informant said were based on false information. Ventura Martinez said in a Feb. 9 interview in the Philadelphia Daily News that he and Cujdik sometimes concocted investigatory background to persuade judges to approve search warrants for houses and cars of drug suspects.
Woods-Skipper said she found Martinez's allegations troubling.
But she ultimately agreed with Assistant District Attorney Robin Godfrey that there was no legally acceptable evidence to justify bail under Pennsylvania's Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA).
"This court is really bound to consider evidence that is before the court," the judge added. "What we have at this point is that there is an investigation ongoing."
No officer has been charged, but since Martinez went public with his allegations, Cujdik, 34, has been assigned to desk duty and has surrendered his service weapon.
The probe of Cujdik and Martinez subsequently resulted in three other narcotics officers' being taken off the street: Richard L. Cujdik, 35, a 13-year police veteran and Jeffrey's brother; Robert McDonnell Jr., 38, an officer since 1993; and Thomas J. Tolstoy, 35, a 10-year veteran.
None has commented on the allegations. Jeffrey Cujdik's attorney has called Martinez a liar and career criminal who is not credible.
Woods-Skipper set a Sept. 25 status hearing, saying she would reconsider her rulings if new evidence developed.
Nine inmates' petitions were before Woods-Skipper, but only five were actually denied. Assistant Public Defender Bradley S. Bridge withdrew four others because the inmates were also serving sentences on unrelated charges or were about to be released on parole.
The inmates who appeared by video were spread among six prisons in Central or Western Pennsylvania. None seemed surprised by the judge's ruling or by Bridge's decision to withdraw four of their bail motions. Those who did express emotion seemed to be reacting to the live technological window that briefly opened to the life they left behind.
"I see my wife!" said Hector Soto, 61, as he entered the studio at the state prison at Camp Hill, near Harrisburg, where he is 15 months into a one-to-eight-year term. Lucille Soto, eyes moist with tears, grinned and blew a kiss toward the screen in the Philadelphia courtroom.
George Mateo, 53, seemed to understand as Bridge explained why his bail petition was being withdrawn. Getting bail for the 15-to-30-month term he is serving at the Mercer prison on the case involving Cujdik would still leave him serving an unrelated two-to-four-year prison term. "Yes, but that's something I didn't do," he quickly retorted, referring to the Cujdik case.
At issue was whether the convictions were so tainted by the involvement of Cujdik and Martinez as to justify freeing the inmates on bail pending the outcome of the FBI-city Internal Affairs probe.
The 39th District police case, which broke in 1995 with five narcotics officers accused of falsely arresting and prosecuting drug dealers, resulted in the reversal of about 500 criminal convictions and the release of many inmates.
There was one crucial difference between the 39th District cases challenged by Bridge and the 52 he has filed now. In the 39th District cases, several officers had already pleaded guilty to corruption charges by the time Bridge began filing his PCRA petitions.
Godfrey argued that none of the 52 Cujdik-Martinez cases challenged by Bridge should be heard until the criminal probe was over. Godfrey said there was no way to determine whether Martinez's newspaper allegations were true: "We don't know anything. The only thing we know is that we don't know anything."
Godfrey also noted that all those who appeared before the judge yesterday had pleaded guilty. "Your honor," Bridge addressed the judge, "we all know that people plead guilty for any number of reasons, and that some of them are innocent."
Bridge said he was hindered in presenting evidence because of the ongoing investigation, becaise Martinez has gone into the federal witness protection program, and because Daily News reporters would assert a journalist's privilege to not reveal sources and information not published in the articles.
Bridge maintained that it was "untenable" to leave innocent people confined when a serious challenge has been made to their arrest and conviction.
Moreover, Bridge said, keeping the inmates in prison will only increase the probable damages the city will pay if their convictions are reversed and they sue. It cost city taxpayers more than $4 million to settle civil-rights suits filed by those falsely arrested by the 39th District officers.
Of the 52 cases, nine are in prison, one was recently released to a halfway house, one was paroled yesterday, and the remaining 41 involved people on probation or who had completed their sentences.