Hampden DA notifying 8,000 criminal defendants of police misconduct
At issue are Springfield officers flagged by federal report
AMID NATIONAL CALLS for police reform and greater transparency in law enforcement, the Springfield Police Department has become a troubling example of what can happen without strong public accountability.
Last year, the department was the subject of a scathing report by the US Department of Justice, which documented a pattern of use of excessive force by officers. Now that report, which also called into question police credibility, has become the basis for the Hampden County district attorney notifying 8,000 criminal defendants that a Springfield police officer connected to their case has also been involved with police misconduct.
The disclosures, part of a complex web of litigation stemming from the police problems, which includes the district attorney suing the federal government, could potentially trigger appeals in criminal cases that relied heavily on police testimony.
Defense attorneys say the notifications, which relate to the conduct of 30 Springfield police officers, could be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cases tainted by years of alleged misconduct by the Springfield police. They say the police misconduct has echoes of the state’s notorious drug lab scandals, which led to the dismissal of tens of thousands of drug convictions. But the impact of the notifications remains to be seen, and the district attorney’s office rejects any comparison to the drug lab scandals.
James Dixon, interim deputy chief counsel for the Committee on Public Counsel Services, the state agency overseeing legal representation for indigent defendants, which is a party to the lawsuit, said the credibility of witnesses is often a major issue at trial. He said that is particularly true when a witness is a police officer who presents themself as a trustworthy authority. “In a fair trial, jurors should be able to weigh the evidence of the prior misconduct in determining whether or not the police officer is testifying truthfully in the case,” Dixon said.
But the Hampden County district attorney’s office maintains that most of the information being disclosed now was already known to defense lawyers and is likely to have little impact on individual cases. Some of the disclosures, for example, relate to cases that have already been highly publicized. “We expect zero cases to be affected by this,” said Jim Leydon, a spokesperson for Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni.
The disclosures stem from a devastating investigatory report that the US Department of Justice released in July 2020, which documented a seven-year pattern of the use of excessive force by the Springfield police narcotics bureau. While the report does not name officers, it details specific incidents of excessive use of force.
The city is in the process of crafting police department reforms to settle the allegations made by the Department of Justice and avoid litigation. City solicitor Ed Pikula said that could be resolved in “weeks, not months.”
The DOJ report came after years of media reports and lawsuits detailing police misconduct. One well-known case involves Springfield Police Sergeant Gregg Bigda, who was indicted on federal charges in 2018 for kicking a teenager in the head and threatening to plant evidence on him. In another instance, the attorney general charged 14 police officers with misconduct after a 2015 bar fight outside Nathan Bill’s Bar and Restaurant, which the officers tried to cover up. Both these incidents are referred to in the DOJ report.
In April, attorneys for the ACLU, the Committee for Public Counsel Services, and the private law firm Goulston and Storrs brought a lawsuit on behalf of CPCS, Hampden County Lawyers for Justice, and individual plaintiffs against Gulluni, asking the Supreme Judicial Court to order the district attorney to conduct a full investigation of Springfield police misconduct.
The Hampden County district attorney argued in briefs that a complete investigation of the Springfield police is beyond the scope of its authority, the court would violate the separation of powers by demanding an investigation, and disclosures should be narrowly tailored to individual cases.
For now, Supreme Judicial Court Justice Dalila Wendlandt, who is the judge overseeing the case, has not ordered a larger investigation. But she is requiring both sides to report on efforts to identify the police officers involved in the incidents in the DOJ report and disclose that information to defendants who had one of those officers testify in their case.
In September, the Hampden district attorney filed a status report with the Supreme Judicial Court indicating that it has been working to identify the police officers accused of misconduct, and it will go ahead with disclosures. According to the district attorney’s office, that effort was ongoing even before the ACLU filed its lawsuit.
According to the report, the Springfield police were able to identify all but four of 23 incidents mentioned in the Department of Justice report, and the police gave prosecutors 800 pages of documents about those incidents. Combing through those documents gave prosecutors a list of 30 current and former Springfield Police Department officers who were “potential witnesses” to misconduct.
The district attorney’s office matched those officers to 8,000 defendants from cases in which those officers participated after the date of the incident they were involved in. The report said the Hampden County district attorney has begun the process of notifying defense attorneys in each case, which is a “massive, time consuming and laborious process” expected to take several weeks.
Attorneys say the notifications could result in appeals and requests for new trials or could have little impact, depending on the facts of each case. Several defense attorneys said jurors should be aware if a police officer testifying in a case has a history of using excessive force, since that would impact the credibility of that police officer’s testimony on the stand.
“If a defendant went to trial and was unaware of the misconduct, they did not receive due process of law,” Dixon, from the public defender’s office, said. “Likewise, a defendant who tendered a plea unaware of the DOJ report, did not make a truly knowing plea. In both circumstance a defendant should be entitled to a new trial.”
Dave Hoose, president of the Hampden County Lawyers for Justice, private attorneys reimbursed by the state for representing indigent clients, said the information “enables us to more properly and fully defend our clientele” because it allows lawyers “to be fully informed of the history and the background of the police officers that are often testifying against our clients.”
Looking ahead, the defense attorneys who brought the lawsuit say these 8,000 cases are just the start. They argue in their status report that the disclosure represents a subset of the officers involved in a subset of misconduct cases – those who can be identified based on the Department of Justice report.
Their motion also complains that the Springfield Police Department’s decision on what documents to release is based on an undisclosed report by Deputy Chief Steven Kent, a former member of the narcotics bureau, who is himself on the list of officers involved in misconduct.
Segal, the ACLU lawyer, referred to the documents released so far as “a trail of breadcrumbs.”
“The entire system for investigating and disclosing evidence of egregious [Springfield Police Department] misconduct now rests on admittedly incomplete disclosures that are based on an investigation and secret report by a former member of the very police unit at the center of the scandal,” attorneys for the ACLU wrote in their report, which asks for a fuller investigation.
Police and prosecutors say they are continuing to work on identifying the officers and incidents. In May, Gulluni sued the US Department of Justice to obtain some of the documents the federal investigation was based on. The Justice Department is refusing to disclose the records, and the suit remains ongoing in federal court.
Pikula, the Springfield city attorney who represents the police department, said work on identifying the officers is ongoing with the police, the district attorney, and the Department of Justice. “I think we’ve made a good start,” Pikula said. “We do need to continue to cooperate with the DA and the DOJ to determine to make sure we’ve got as accurate information as we can get.”
Pikula said Kent does not have authority over what documents to disclose – he was simply the deputy the police commissioner assigned to prepare a report for the law department on the incidents described in the DOJ report.
The case has echoes of two recent notorious drug lab scandals that have rocked the state’s criminal justice system. After drug chemist Annie Dookhan, who worked in the state’s Hinton lab in Boston, faked test results and Sonja Farak, a chemist in an Amherst state lab, stole drug samples to feed her addiction, the ACLU, the Committee for Public Counsel Services, and others filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Judicial Court. The case ultimately led to state prosecutors dropping tens of thousands of tainted drug convictions.
Attorneys for the ACLU and CPCS, in their petition to the court, compared the Springfield police misconduct to the state drug lab cases in asking the court to require a full investigation, as was done with the drug labs. The attorneys wrote although the two scandals are similar, in the Springfield police cases, “the Commonwealth has not implemented the robust system of investigation, disclosure, and notice developed in the drug lab context.”
Segal said both scandals involve egregious misconduct by government actors – police officers or state chemists – which creates a state duty to investigate the full scope of misconduct and disclose it.
“What our petition says is, in light of the drug lab precedents, the Commonwealth has the duty to investigate the full scope and gravity of egregious misconduct of the Springfield Police Department, and the Commonwealth doesn’t appear to be doing that,” Segal said.
The Hampden DA’s office rejects the comparison. “Fortunately, the SPD, whatever its failings, is neither the Hinton nor the Amherst drug lab, and Gregg Bigda is neither Annie Doohkan nor Sonja Farak,” attorneys for Gulluni wrote in a brief, referring to the Springfield police sergeant involved in the 2018 misconduct case. “The petitioners have neither established ‘egregious misconduct’ nor demonstrated that there are tens of thousands of potentially affected defendants.”No one is yet asking for mass dismissals in this case, and several attorneys say they anticipate judgements will be made on a case-by-case basis. They note that having an invalid drug certificate in a case that hinges on drug evidence is different from testimony that calls into question the credibility of a single police officer.
But Radha Natarajan, executive director of the New England Innocence Project, which filed a court brief in support of the defense lawyers, said the drug lab case creates a precedent for a mass dismissal of charges in cases of wide scale, systemic misconduct. “Whether that will happen here, it’s much too early to tell,” she said.