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Frame-Up: Innocent Suspects Framed By Police in Drug-Plant Scheme Awarded $3.5 M

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New Jersey Police Drug-Plant Scheme

Truth is stranger than fiction. This home truth came in a wide ranging police corruption scheme - similar to a scene straight out of the action-packed movie "TRAINING DAY," a fictional drama starring legendary actor Denzel Washington, who played the character of a low-down, "dirty" narcotic officer who framed the innocent and stole drug money.

Here it was in real life, from 2007 to 2009, police officers in Camden New Jersey, known as the Platoon Squad, went on a "drug war" rampage of planting drugs on innocent people, falsifying police reports to justify bogus arrests, committing perjury in court, and stealing drugs and money from suspects, that led to the illegal arrests of over 200 people who went to prison before the courts threw out their sentences.

camden police department badge
Camden Police Department badge

The bold, illegal tactics of the New Jersey cops, made the "dirty cop" character in TRAINING DAY look like a choir boy. In a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of the wrongfully convicted defendants, attorneys with American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU), wrote that:

"If any action by a police officer shocks the conscience, it is the planting of evidence on an innocent person in order to arrest him."

One of the framed victims identified as Joel Barnes who pled guilty to a planted-drug charge to avoid a possible life sentence lamented, "I felt helpless and didn't know what to do."

"I knew I hadn't done anything wrong but all I knew that the officers had the power and I had none."

"Barnes told his lawyer he was innocent, he didn't believe him; and when Joel told his mother that he was innocent she didn't believe him either," ACLU attorney Alexander Shalom told NewsBlaze in a recent interview.

The ACLU alleged in a class-action lawsuit that "The police officers' actions violated the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibits civil rights violations, and through their own actions or the lack of policies and supervision, the Camden police officers conspired to plant drugs and falsely arrested the defendants for planted drugs and further provided the prosecutors with faulty evidence."

With the exception of an acquittal for officer Robert Bayard and Antonio Figueroa, the other three officers pled guilty to civil rights violations under (U.S.C. 241 and 242 Federal Statute); to stealing money from suspects during illegal searches and false arrests. The officers' conduct was so egregious and "out of control" the FBI uncovered the most unusual twist: the rogue officers paid street snitchers and prostitutes for information with illegal drugs and money stolen from other suspected narcotic dealers and never reported the recovery of drugs and cash.

Last January 2013, the City of Camden awarded the innocent defendants framed by police a sum of $3.5 million dollars. The settlement was split between 87 drug defendants who joined the class-action lawsuit. The innocent men served a combined total of 109 years in prison prior to being released.

The City of Camden paid another $390,000 in a separate-state civil rights lawsuit filed by 11 people, whose convictions were also dropped as a result of being framed by the same rogue cops. Initially, the defendants and ACLU attorneys faced another major hurdle when the City of Camden filed a lawsuit against their own insurance company that initially refused to pay off the money needed for the historical settlement.

Another legal battle hit the surface when ACLU received in the mail a secret Internal Affairs Division tape from a discreet whistleblower, a Camden police file that detailed complaints and other sensitive information previously filed against the accused officers. Camden police claimed the ACLU were in possession of stolen property. Finally the battle fizzled when the city reached a settlement with ACLU.

Of five officers charged in federal court on civil rights violations involving perjury and drug planting conspiracies; four were convicted with one acquitted.

The Convictions

alexander shalom
Alexander Shalom, ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney, who litigates cases on issues that disproportionately impact people of color.
Photo: ACLU

Convicted through guilty pleas are:

(1) Sergeant Supervisor Dan Morris, 47, received eight months in federal prison in December 2012-on a charge of conspiracy to deprive defendants of their civil rights.

(2) Sentenced to 20 months federal confinement on the same charge on October 10th 2012 was officer Kevin Parry, 30, while officer Jason Stetsen, 32, got 46 months in January 2013.

(3) Following a jury trial that lasted three and a half weeks, Antonio Figueroa, 34, was hit the hardest with a ten-year prison term while officer Robert Bayard, 32, cried after his acquittal during the same trial.

Bayard's acquittal left prosecutors and the defendants dumbfounded.

Even fellow officers testified that Bayard knowingly participated in the drug-plant scheme.

In an interview with NewsBlaze, ACLU attorney Alexander Shalom described the drug plant scheme as the worst he'd seen in many years.

"We often hear about it, but we were shocked that it was provable."

Shalom added that most of the innocent defendants had been represented by private counsel but they still pled guilty to false charges.

"A lot of things account for that decision, not the least of, that drug sentencing laws are so harsh that if they hadn't pled guilty they were facing insanely long sentences."

The officers were indicted and relieved of duty following a long-term investigation by the FBI, assisted by U.S. Attorney Office and Camden Police Internal Affairs. ACLU's Shalom said what triggered the investigation was when the FBI started the investigation after several persistent victims notified Internal Affairs, plus complaints from Camden's Public Defender's Office.

Rogue Cops Terrorizing the Hood

crack cocaine
Crack cocaine
Photo: Wikipedia

Camden residents recoiled in anger over the drug-planting schemes by a group of local rogue cops. The indicted officers, Stetser, Parry, Bayard, Morris and Figueroa grew very bold that they claimed the Waterfront where most of the illegal arrests were made as their territory.

The officers boasted "drug dealers live here but we run it."

In an interview with Philadephia Inquirer reporters Mike Newhall and Matt Katz, Kevin Smith said, "They were the dirtiest cops I ever seen."

Jason Stetser aka "Fat Face" was called by the hustlers - a "menace to society."

In some cases, according to the officers' confession, additional drugs were added to the drugs that a person may already have to increase the penalty for jail time.

Police officer Jason Stetser admitted to the FBI that in September 2008, that he and three other officers arrested two people for suspicion of narcotic trafficking, and planted drugs on the individuals. In a warrantless search of a residence, officer Stetser and his fellow officers falsely stated the targeted suspect fled the scene and discarded drugs during the escape from police.

No such events occurred, according to the FBI and officials with Camden County prosecutor's office.

Sergeant Dan Morris recalled conducting a warrantless residence search where he stole money and drugs, splitting the cash with officer Stetser.

After officer Robert Bayard's trial in December 2011, evidence showed that Bayard wrote a report accusing Ron Mills, 46, of throwing a bag of drugs on the ground and eluding police after a foot chase. Bayard's report proved false because Mills weighed over 300 pounds and he always walked slowly with a cane. Shockingly, Bayard and officer Antonio Figueroa were acquitted on that particular charge, although Figueroa was convicted on a conspiracy charge and got ten years in the federal joint.

Figueroa is appealing the conviction.

Officers also admitted to arresting Anthony Darrell Clark on drug charges. Described as slow and emotionally disturbed, Clark was released back to his mother's home who cared for him.

"I always thought he was framed," his mother Vera Clark told the Inquirer reporters.

Benjamin Davis served a full term of 30 months before he came home. Davis said he pled guilty than try to beat the rap because, "With my priors I had no chance of beating it."

Joel Barnes Framed

It was Summertime in Camden New Jersey, a typical extra-warm day, and the bright sun beamed sweltering heat across the city on August 2nd 2008. Joel Barnes, then 26, visited his grandmother's home to attend a family barbeque, a regular get-together for the Barnes relatives to enjoy the festivities while reminiscing and sipping beverages. Preparation for the event required extra help; so Joel Barnes hurried over to a friend's house nearby to ask his friend for immediate assistance to situate a heavy barbeque pit and to help spruce up Barnes's grandmother's backyard.

Upon arrival, Barnes encountered heavily armed Camden police officers rushing into the house with guns drawn, yelling, "police...police...police! Where's the drugs?"

Frightened by guns drawn, Barnes, along with other occupants of the residence were forced into the kitchen where officer Robert Bayard handcuffed Barnes. Bayard pulled a cell phone, cash and keys from Barnes pocket. No drugs or contraband were found on Barnes, so he figured he would be released once thing settled down.

Next, Barnes was led outside the house and thrown into a raid van by officer Antonio Figueroa. Barnes was taken by surprise when Figueroa returned to the van and asked him, "Where's the shit at?"

Sweating profusely, Barnes heart pounded faster than a Nascar race driver as he tried to explained to Figueroa that he was only there to ask his friend for help with a barbeque pit.

"I don't know if there is drugs in that house. I don't live here, Barnes said in a nervous tone voice."

Playing the frame-up game, Figueroa showed Barnes a bag containing PCP laced marijuana. Then the officer issued a menacing threat.

"Tell us where the shit's at, and we'll make this disappear," Figueroa deadpanned. The officer's threat duplicated the famous line in the movie TRAINING DAY, a memorable line uttered by Denzel's character; "Do you want to go home...or go to jail?"

Officer Figueroa pressed ahead to break down Barnes' denials. The officer, growing angrier, told Barnes that "the drugs in the bag carried more serious criminal charges than any drugs that may be found in the house."

Figueroa further explained to Barnes that he would get a lesser prison sentence - if he just told police the location of drugs in his friend's home.

Hoping to convince his innocence, Joel Barnes swore to heaven, pleading with officers Figueroa and now officer Robert Bayard to let him go because he knew, "nothing about drugs in the house."

Playing tag team bullies, rogue officers Figueroa and Bayard repeatedly pestered Barnes, "Where's the shit?" Figueroa waved the dope bag again reminding Barnes, "this is yours."

"That bag's not mine," an exasperated Barnes cried out.

joel barnes
Joel Barnes pled guilty to a planted-drug charge, after crooked cops threatened him with a possible life sentence.
Photo: ACLU

Eventually Figueroa re-approached the van and yelled, "We found the shit; you're going to jail!" Like a wounded animal, Barnes heart cried for help. Police officers framed him for a crime he didn't commit although no drugs were found in the house and nobody else went to jail. Figueroa charged the innocent young man with possession of drugs with intent to deliver; and possession of drugs within 100 feet of a school zone.

Facing up to life in prison on the charges and notwithstanding the fact that Barnes believed a jury would disbelieve his story and instead believe the officers' story that he had the dope, he pled guilty on February 23rd 2009 to one count of drug possession within a school zone. On April 17th 2009, Barnes began serving a five-year prison term.

Barnes had often heard of police framing people; he never thought it would happen to him.

A breakthrough came when Barnes' mother read in the newspaper about the indictment of the officers in his case. When Barnes retrieved his file he confirmed the officer's identities. First he called the courts and the Public Defender's office for help but he got no response. Finally the ACLU stepped in and Joel Barnes was freed from custody on June 8th 2010.

Three of the convicted officers who testified against former officer Antonio Figueroa have been released from prison and started a new life while Figueroa still remains behind bars appealing his sentence.

Our criminal justice system hinges on the honesty of law enforcement officers. When officers lie to obtain a conviction, they needlessly shatter the lives of the people they wrongfully accuse.

An analyst & researcher for the PI industry and a business consultant, Clarence Walker is a veteran writer, crime reporter and investigative journalist. His writing career began with True Crime Magazines in Houston TX in 1983, where he published over 300 feature stories. Read an expanded bio and more stories by Clarence Walker.

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