Judge denies new trial for 2 ex-Detroit cops

George Hunter
The Detroit News

A federal judge has denied a request for a new trial from two convicted former Detroit police narcotics officers, who are running out of options as they scramble to avoid going to prison.

U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy made the decision to deny the new trial motion, after he had agreed to hear the request by ex-cops David Hansberry and Bryan Watson. The judge on March 20 ordered the hearing, originally set for April 11, to be moved to April 18. Then, four days later, he issued a ruling denying the motion.

“I don’t know why he did that,” Hansberry told The Detroit News. “It’s just weird that he would move the hearing date up a week, and then a few days later deny our motion without even hearing our argument.”

Murphy wrote in his ruling there was no need to hold the hearing, because the issue to be resolved was “straightforward.” Federal court officials say it’s not unusual for judges to deny motions after granting hearings.

Hansberry and Watson were convicted in July 2016 of extortion, and sentenced last month to prison following a five-week trial. The ex-officers originally were charged with 10 felonies, including robbing drug dealers of dope and money, and intent to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine. A jury acquitted them of nine of the charges, although the ex-cops were found guilty of interference with commerce by extortion.

Murphy sentenced Hansberry to 12 years and 11 months in prison. Watson received a nine-year sentence. Despite the government’s protests, the judge allowed the ex-cops to remain free until they could be placed in a federal prison. No date has been set for them to begin their sentences.

Attorneys for Hansberry and Watson in February filed a motion for a new trial. They claimed U.S. prosecutors kept the jury from learning the identity of a man discussing on a telephone recording how two dope dealers, not the officers, had stolen nearly $1 million in cash that had been confiscated in a 2010 drug bust.

Hansberry and Watson say the man on the phone was Gary Jackson, the government’s star witness who said the two cops had been robbing and extorting drug dealers, including the 2010 bust about which Jackson had informed the officers. The cops also claim an FBI report shows the government knew all along it was Jackson’s voice on the recording, but that prosecutors objected in court to testimony that would have revealed Jackson’s identity.

In responding to the motion for a new trial, the DOJ called the officers’ claims of innocence “completely without substance,” adding the officers misinterpreted the phone call. “They claim, in essence, the government allowed a witness to testify untruthfully,” Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Michael Buckley wrote. “Hansberry’s interpretation of the meaning of the words spoken in the call is a stretch, to say the least.”

In his March 24 ruling, Murphy agreed, adding there were other reasons he denied the officers’ motion.

“The motion that was filed contained a caption for the United States Court of Appeals and several other irregularities,” the judge wrote. “In addition, counsel for Defendant Hansberry filed a motion to withdraw from representing Hansberry during the pendency of the motion. Accordingly, and given the straightforward nature of the question to be resolved here, the Court finds that a hearing on the motion would not be of any assistance or use.

“The centerpiece of Hansberry’s argument now — the FBI ... report acknowledging Jackson’s voice on the audio recording — actually demonstrates that the Government did not review the recording until four months after the jury verdict in the trial,” the judge wrote.

“At the time of the trial, the Government lawyers had never even listened to the audio recording in question, which was one of 3,500 total phone calls made by Jackson on three separate phones. The Government could not have failed to disclose information during trial that it obtained four months afterwards. Hansberry offers nothing to show otherwise.

“More importantly, debate over disclosure is not germane,” Murphy wrote. “The simple issue is whether the Court properly excluded a recorded conversation that Hansberry sought to introduce to impeach a Government witness. A review of the trial testimony reveals that the Court’s evidentiary ruling was entirely proper, and procedurally sound.

“There is absolutely no interest of justice that would merit the time and expense of a new trial,” the judge wrote.

Federal court spokesman David Ashenfelter said the judge’s ruling is not unusual. “Judges can and do decide straightforward issues without conducing a hearing if they conclude a hearing would be unnecessary,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hansberry and Watson vow they’ll still fight to avoid prison, although they said the judge’s decision was a major setback.

“The judge granted our motion, just to ungrant it,” Hansberry said. “But we’re not done yet.”

Watson added: “We were confident. We felt that motion was going to get us a new trial, and when the judge said he’d hear it, it was encouraging. (His decision) was devastating.”

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