Alleged bad-apple cop was witness in court
March 10, 2005
by Cary Spivak & Dan Bice
One day before Milwaukee cop Ala Awadallah was busted this week by the FBI on charges of shaking down a parolee, he was in the most unlikely of places:
Sitting in the witness stand testifying for federal prosecutors in a drug/illegal immigration case.
Can you say "appeal"?
U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic now must determine what to do about the conviction of Ricardo Villegas, against whom Awadallah testified.
"I was very surprised," said Nancy Joseph, the public defender who represented Villegas, about hearing the news that a prosecution witness had been charged by the feds.
"I have never had a situation where a police officer is a witness in court with me one day and the next day he's sitting in the defense seat," she said.
Villegas, an El Salvador native, was convicted of illegal re-entry and marijuana possession in a half-day bench trial before U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller on Monday. Awadallah was one of two arresting officers who testified.
On Tuesday afternoon, Biskupic held a press conference to boast that he had charged Awadallah with shaking down a parolee for money and guns. An FBI agent's affidavit accuses the 26-year-old officer of threatening to plant drugs on the man and to have him sent back to prison.
By Thursday, Biskupic was sheepishly admitting his office may have goofed.
"It's one of those things that happen when law enforcement officers are investigated," Biskupic said. "To the extent it's a screw-up, yeah, I take responsibility for it."
Karine Moreno-Taxman, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Villegas, said she was as surprised as anyone when she heard the name of her witness on the radio news.
"I was not aware that my office was investigating Officer Awadallah nor that charges were going to be brought against him," she wrote in a Wednesday letter to Stadtmueller. "I only learned of the charges last night and then confirmed them this morning with the Assistant United States Attorney who is handling the case against Officer Awadallah."
You'd think federal prosecutors would have procedures in place to safeguard against this sort of thing. One former prosecutor said that back in his day, all prosecutors would be given a heads-up whenever a cop was under investigation.
"It would be a staff memo, just saying, 'Hey, if anybody's got this guy as a witness, let us know,' " the ex-prosecutor said.
Biskupic agreed that option still exists, though inexplicably the brass opted not to do it in the Awadallah case.
"That is one way to handle it. We have done that in the past," Biskupic said. "I don't have a good answer for this one right now."
Now Biskupic, Moreno-Taxman, Joseph and Stadtmueller will all be scrutinizing the case trying to figure what damage was caused by having Awadallah testify and how to undo it.
Joseph said she's unsure what route she'll follow.
But Joseph, a state and federal public defender for 11 years, said she's sure there are legitimate questions to be raised about Awadallah's testimony.
"Every single witness that takes that stand, their credibility is at issue," Joseph said. "When a police officer is charged like that, it just makes you stop and think about the credibility of him and other witnesses."
The scenario that federal prosecutors fear: Villegas' illegal re-entry conviction, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years behind bars, has to be wiped out because of Awadallah's testimony.
Biskupic said his office will have to evaluate how crucial that testimony was before making any decisions.
It was a fluke that Awadallah testified at all. Moreno-Taxman said she had used another arresting officer in a previous hearing and was planning to use that same cop on Monday. But when that officer came down with pneumonia, Moreno-Taxman had to call in Awadallah to pinch-hit.
So with this rash of Milwaukee police officers getting in trouble, should defense attorneys routinely ask cops whether they expect to be the next one charged?
Joseph said maybe, but in this particular case, she said she had no reason to think that Awadallah was in hot water. She and her client had to wait a day for the news media to disclose this key piece of evidence.
"This has floored me," she said. "It's just a weird situation."
||Truth in Justice