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Bernstein opens trial of Baltimore officers accused of kidnapping

Gregg Bernstein introduced himself to jurors Wednesday as the Baltimore City state’s attorney. Then he introduced the three police officers accused of kidnapping and abandoning two Baltimore teenagers, pointing to each one for emphasis.

“They thought that just because they carry a gun, just because they wear a badge, the laws that apply to you and I don’t apply to them,” Bernstein said in his inaugural opening statement as the city’s top prosecutor. “They thought they could act with impunity.”

Bernstein’s statement in Baltimore City Circuit Court lasted approximately 15 minutes before a packed gallery, including a row of prosecutors that cleared out when he finished. Later, he peppered Shawnquin Woodland, one of the complainants and the first witness, with succinct questions for just as long. Woodland testified at one point he was “chillin’ outside” when the May 2009 incident occurred.

“Who were you chillin’ with?” Bernstein said, not missing a beat.

Officers Milton Smith, Tyrone Francis and Gregory Hellen are each charged with counts of kidnapping, false imprisonment, second-degree assault and misconduct in office.

The jury of four men and eight women (including two alternates) will be deciding Smith’s and Francis’ cases. Although Hellen is being tried simultaneously, he elected a bench trial, which means Judge Timothy J. Doory will decide his case.

As a result, Hellen’s lawyer, David B. Irwin of Irwin, Green & Dexter LLP in Towson, did not address the jurors.

Lawyers for the two other officers raised similar points in their opening statements.

“My client is not a rogue cop. He’s not a cowboy,” said Kenneth W. Ravenell, Smith’s lawyer. “Any suggestions he did what the state alleges he did is so out of character for what he has done in 11 years as a police officer.”

“Tyrone Francis has done nothing wrong,” said Michael J. Belsky of Schlachman, Belsky & Weiner P.A. in Baltimore, his voice rising. “Tyrone Francis has no business being here.”

Belsky also hammered home two points Ravenell picked up in his cross-examination of Woodland: that he and Michael Johnson, the other alleged victim, “exaggerated and embellished” what happened; and the officers, part of the department’s Violent Crimes Impact Section, deliberately dropped the teens off away from their homes for their own safety.

“You didn’t want to be seen as a snitch,” Ravenell, of Murphy P.A. in Baltimore, said at one point to Woodland. “You don’t want to be known as someone who gives [his friends’] names to police.”

“I don’t think it’s being known as a snitch,” Woodland replied. “I didn’t do anything wrong and neither did they.”

Ravenell spent most of his cross-examination, which will continue Thursday, pointing out contradictions between what Woodland told jurors about the incident and what he told members of the police’s Internal Affairs Division a month after the incident. The teenager typically reconciled the contradictions by saying he “could’ve” seen what Ravenell said he saw.

“You could’ve seen a leprechaun,” Ravenell said at one point, drawing chuckles from the courtroom.

The day ended after several lengthy bench conferences. Doory told jurors not to seek out any information about the case, prompting Bernstein to request another bench conference.

The judge then elaborated on his instruction, ordering the jurors not to read or see anything in the news or on social media.

Left unused Wednesday were two 55-inch flat-screen televisions, whose boxes were stored in one corner of the courtroom. Mark R. Cheshire, a spokesman for the state’s attorney’s office, said the TVs were brought to court by defense lawyers.

Two prominent city lawyers attended parts of the proceedings — Warren A. Brown, an early supporter of Bernstein’s in last year’s election, who also popped into court during pretrial motions; and A. Dwight Pettit, who represents Johnson in a $100 million civil suit stemming from the incident.

The next hearing in the lawsuit is not scheduled until the middle of May, by which point the officers’ criminal trials should be completed.