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Federal prosecutors lauded the results of a major drug sting last year at the Woodland Terrace public-housing project in Southeast D.C., stating in court filings that 23 arrests had dismantled “a full-service open-air drug market” that had “endangered communities throughout the entire Metro area.” Now many of those defendants will be back on the streets after the local U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Thursday it is dismissing all charges against 13 of the defendants. The stunning reversal follows a discovery debacle, which included late disclosures by prosecutors about the criminal acts of a crack-addicted police informant, who made scores of videotaped drug buys during the five-month sting and crashed an unmarked police car last year. “We believed it was the right thing to do,” U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Channing Phillips said in a Feb. 8 statement about dismissing the cases. “After reviewing these matters, we have concluded that we should not go forward with any of the 13 Woodland Terrace cases involving this special employee.” The dismissed cases include not only four cases scheduled for trial in D.C. Superior Court but several cases that already resulted in convictions through plea deals, which now will be withdrawn. Many of the defendants faced felony charges of distributing PCP or crack cocaine in a drug-free zone, which carries a sentence of up to 54 years in prison on each count. Phillips said prosecutors will move forward with 10 other cases from the bust that did not involve the informant, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office is working with the Metropolitan Police Department on the appropriate use of confidential informants. “We understand clearly some mistakes were made,” Phillips said. “We’re taking actions to make sure that these problems don’t reoccur.” However, Phillips says prosecutors did nothing wrong in their handling of the Woodland Terrace cases, which raises questions about possible communication problems with the police. “No one is disputing that the recently turned-over discovery should have been provided earlier had we known about it. The problem was we didn’t know about it,” Phillips said. “Our prosecutors turned over the information as soon as it came to our attention.” A TRAIL OF CRIME Court filings revealed the informant abused drugs last year during the Woodland Terrace bust and failed multiple drug tests while on probation for his own cocaine-possession conviction. Last April, he blacked out and crashed an unmarked police car into three other cars on Southern Avenue Southeast while working on another D.C. police investigation. Officers did not test the informant for drugs or charge him for the crash even though he didn’t have a valid driver’s license. The informant, who has earned more than $105,000 working for the police department and other area law-enforcement agencies since 1998, also was convicted for stealing crack and marijuana from drug buys in a previous sting and was kicked out of a witness relocation program in Virginia for beating up a family member. “It’s shocking that an individual as compromised by his criminal acts would continue to be used for so long and paid so much,” says defense attorney Colin Dunham, who represented a defendant whose case was dismissed. Prosecutors have not disclosed the informant’s identity because of possible threats to his safety. Legal Times has decided not to name the informant. “Are you trying to get me killed?” the informant said during a brief telephone interview on Friday. “I don’t have anything to say at this time.” Superior Court Judge Craig Iscoe, who was assigned most of the Woodland Terrace cases, twice postponed a trial in January for defendant Timwone Tyree because of late or incomplete discovery about the informant from Assistant U.S. Attorney George Varghese. Defense attorney Donna Beasley pressed for the information and filed a motion to dismiss Tyree’s case for violations of discovery requirements established under the Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland. Beasley stated in her motion that defense attorneys representing the 11 Woodland Terrace defendants who entered plea deals had not received any discovery about the informant. Several defense attorneys who handled some of the plea deals confirmed that allegation. Defense attorney Jose Molina says he may not have entered a plea deal last year for defendant Curtis Nolen if prosecutors had provided Brady information about the informant, which he requested last October but didn’t receive until Thursday. Nolen’s plea deal will now be withdrawn. “I think that maybe the U.S. Attorney’s Office should have gotten off their butts and gotten this information to me months ago,” Molina says. Phillips would not comment on the handling of the plea deals. Iscoe took the unusual step of calling four defense attorneys handling trial-bound Woodland Terrace cases to a Feb. 6 hearing. A discussion of the ongoing discovery issues was cut short by Varghese, who announced all four cases would be dismissed, prompting a row of smiles behind the defense table. At that hearing, Iscoe questioned whether D.C. police officers had informed prosecutors of “ Brady-type disclosures in the press about the reliability of the informant.” A Jan. 29 Legal Times article revealed two police lieutenants stopped using the informant midway through the Woodland Terrace sting and in an unrelated surveillance investigation because of serious questions about his reliability after his car crash. Narcotics supervisors also considered decertifying the informant so he could no longer work for the police department. “If the police officers are making statements to the press, they certainly should be informing the government as well,” Iscoe said. Iscoe, who chided Varghese last month about the discovery problems, did not find any prosecutorial misconduct. “The government has if belatedly made great efforts to comply with all its Brady requirements,” the judge said. Police spokesman Sgt. Joe Gentile wouldn’t comment about whether the Woodland Terrace informant ultimately was decertified or on D.C. police policy governing the use of informants. “If there are concerns, we’ll review them,” Gentile said. D.C. police and prosecutors should have known the informant would be trouble, based on his own testimony during a 2001 drug trial in Superior Court stemming from his work in another sting at the Sursum Corda neighborhood in Northwest D.C. The informant admitted he repeatedly lied to his police handlers and was dealing crack cocaine while also making undercover drug buys. According to an appeal in that case, a police officer testified that several times the informant “showed up for work after a night-long crack binge, and officers sent him away because it would have been unsafe for him to drive the [unmarked police] car.” After learning of the informant’s history, Molina questioned the oversight of informants by D.C. police superiors. “You’ve got a guy who was this out of control, and he appeared to be completely out of control, and they let this go on under their noses,” he says.
Brendan Smith can be contacted at [email protected].

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