Gregg Bernstein lost his first contention Thursday while trying his inaugural case as Baltimore City state’s attorney. But prosecutors ultimately prevailed on a key, preliminary issue when a judge ruled three police officers accused of kidnapping and abandoning two Baltimore teenagers will stand trial together.
“I’m satisfied we are talking about the same act in general,” Judge Timothy J. Doory said near the end of a two-hour hearing in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
Bernstein, along with Assistant State’s Attorney Michelle Martin, began the hearing by arguing Officers Milton Smith, Tyrone Francis and Gregory Hellen should first elect whether they wanted a jury or bench trial. Lawyers for all three officers objected, saying that decision should be based on the outcome of the severance rulings.
“I can’t advise him about making a decision without knowing what I’m trying,” said Michael J. Belsky, who is representing Francis.
Doory agreed with the defense lawyers.
“The defendants should know what case they are pleading to” when they elect a jury or bench trial, the judge said.
The courtroom was filled with a combination of media, prosecutors and witnesses, some of whom were police officers. Doory had the witnesses leave the room early in the proceedings when he put a sequestration order in place.
When Bernstein was not addressing the court, he sat at the prosecutors’ table taking notes and highlighting case law. As Belsky argued to sever his client’s case from Smith’s, Bernstein conferred with Martin and at one point tilted his head back and looked up at the ceiling.
“I’m really at a loss to understand what he’s talking about,” Bernstein said when it was prosecutors’ turn to respond.
Belsky and David B. Irwin, Hellen’s lawyer, argued their cases should be tried together but separate from Smith’s based on the evidence in each alleged victim’s case. Both lawyers warned of the potential for mistrial with the 18 charges among three defendants.
But Bernstein countered the officers were charged with conspiracy, meaning there was a concerted action and agreement to commit the crime regardless of individual roles.
“The three defendants were in a van together and abducted these two individuals and then dumped them,” he said.
Pretrial motions will continue Friday, with the main issue being whether there will be one trial for both alleged victims or a trial for each. Doory indicated he would rule on that issue Friday and expected the defendants to elect a jury or bench trial by the end of the day. The trial will then resume Tuesday with jury selection, if necessary.