The DA's tangled web with a lying cop
As A.J. Thomson prepared to prosecute 29-year-old Terrance Clark on drug-and-gun charges in December 2013, the assistant district attorney was startled by a defense motion that brought the routine case to a sudden halt: Philadelphia Police Officer Christopher Hulmes, who arrested Clark, had admitted to lying under oath in another case.
Thomson said he read the transcript that accompanied the defense motion — from a 2011 hearing in which Hulmes admitted to lying in a drug-and-gun case against Arthur Rowland — and decided it would be unethical to try Clark. In Thomson's view, Officer Hulmes could not be trusted to tell the truth.
"I read the notes and I almost have a stroke," says Thomson. "I'm about to put him on the stand and nobody ever told me about this?"
Clark's case revealed an admitted crime by a police officer — perjury — and the apparent preference by District Attorney Seth Williams' office to keep it hidden in plain sight. Annie Fisher, Eastern Division Chief at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, decried the DA's Office for coddling someone she says it should be prosecuting.
"Officer Hulmes admitted to the crime of perjury," Fisher writes in an email. "When police officers commit crimes and abuse their power, the District Attorney's office needs to send a message that such corruption will not be tolerated. By refusing to prosecute Officer Hulmes for the crime he admits to committing, and by continuing to call him as a witness, the DA's Office puts their stamp of approval on this police misconduct. This kind of tainted justice destroys the integrity of the entire criminal-justice system."
On a daily basis, the city's Criminal Justice Center processes minor drug war spoils in assembly-line fashion: Police officers watch and raid drug corners in Kensington or North Philadelphia and testify about what they see and find. The result? A churn of convictions and guilty pleas over bags of heroin or crack cocaine.
"As long as the police are subpoenaed and you know the drugs are at the chem lab, you just ask police officers what happened," says Thomson, recalling preparation for narcotics cases.
A defendant's freedom often hinges on a police officer's word.
After reading about Hulmes' false statements, Thomson says he walked into the office of his supervisor at the District Attorney's Office, East Division Bureau Chief Angel Flores, to confront him and Assistant Chief Jacqueline McCauley.
"I said, 'Look, we have a major problem,'" Thomson recalls. "How can I argue with a straight face that this isn't relevant evidence?"
Thomson says that he later insisted that Hulmes be taken off the street, and that Flores and McCauley laughed. Clark's case was postponed and then reassigned to another prosecutor.
Thomson's disagreements with his supervisors persisted. On July 3, he says he was fired after he blew up at supervisors who accused him of lacking prosecutorial judgment. McCauley, says Thomson, had earlier placed him on probation after he disagreed with the merits of an unrelated shooting case. He says that both cases are reflective of a philosophy pervading the DA's Office: prosecute no matter what.
DA spokesperson Tasha Jamerson rejects Thomson's account, saying that his "termination had nothing to do with his alleged concerns about Officer Hulmes" and that he "never told his supervisors that Hulmes should be removed from duty or precluded from testifying."
Jamerson also characterizes Thomson's performance as "substandard."
But Thomson says that he received a merit raise in October 2013, and provided City Paper with a copy of a mostly positive evaluation he says was given in July 2013.
Flores' evaluation complimented Thomson for being a "tenacious and relentless prosecutor going after ... violent defendants" and called his cases a "success story" in the DA's GunStat program. It also credited Thomson's "street smarts" for allowing him "to connect with the victims and witnesses we serve."
Flores and McCauley did not respond to an interview request. McCauley is married to Narcotics Strike Force Officer Joseph McCauley, who often works closely with Officer Hulmes. Jamerson said McCauley did not handle cases involving her husband, and that "the fact that she is married to a police officer ... does not disqualify her from participating in cases involving other police officers, just as a judge, for example, would not be disqualified from all criminal cases because she is married to a criminal defense attorney."
The DA's office had continued to keep Hulmes' admitted lying quiet and failed to turn over evidence of his misconduct to defense attorneys until Aug. 6, when City Paper first reported it. After that, the DA's Office provided defense attorneys with transcripts from the 2011 Rowland hearing and a related Police Internal Affairs report, but continued to pursue Hulmes' cases and to defend the officer in court.
By contrast, Police Department officials quickly took Hulmes and his partner Officer Patrick Banning (who had signed an apparently perjured search-warrant application) off the street, and placed them under investigation.
The DA's Office reversed course last week and announced a review of Hulmes' cases after City Paper revealed that a prosecutor had accused the officer of lying in a second case, from 2007. Meanwhile, Clark, who was arrested in 2010, is finally scheduled for trial on Sept. 9. It's unclear whether Hulmes will testify.
But the question remains, why was Hulmes' lying under oath kept secret from defense attorneys and apparently not shared with the Police Department for more than two years?
"There needs to be an inquiry: Who knew what, when?" says Thomson, a lifelong Fishtown resident who for now must raise four daughters on his wife's income alone.
"I'm a victim of the stop-snitching culture," he says.
In his evaluation, Flores had mixed feelings about Thomson's temperament, saying that being an "extremely outspoken" prosecutor who "does not hesitate to raise his concerns, or displeasure, about a situation with his supervisors or a judge" had negative and positive repercussions.
Flores encouraged Thomson "that if he has a concern about a situation that applies only to him that perhaps he should have a private conversation with his supervisors as opposed to voicing his concerns to the masses."
➤ Hulmes, a member of the Narcotics Strike Force since 2000, admitted to lying under oath on a search-warrant application and while testifying in a December 2011 hearing over a motion filed by Rowland, who was seeking to have gun-and-drug evidence against him thrown out.
Hulmes, whom City Paper has been unable to reach for comment, claimed the lie was to
protect a confidential source.
In January 2012, Common Pleas Court Judge James Murray Lynn granted Rowland's motion to suppress evidence and lambasted the District Attorney's Office.
"You cannot put an officer on the witness stand who is going to say, 'I lied to an issuing magistrate [who signs off on search warrants],'" said Lynn, a judge with a law-and-order reputation. "You cannot do that."
Assistant District Attorney Tracy Piatkowski was present to receive Judge Lynn's ruling, and said that she would "review it with my supervisors."
Hulmes' credibility problems worsened last Thursday, when City Paper revealed that former Assistant District Attorney Kelly Surrick had accused him of lying about where he had recovered a gun in a previously secret second instance.
On July 25, 2007, police stated that they had discovered a handgun in an alley near the 3000 block of Warnock Street, close to 11th and Indiana in North Philadelphia. Hulmes testified under oath at three preliminary hearings that the gun had been found in the alley.
In 2008, Surrick alleged that Hulmes had told her that the gun was found in the defendant's home, and that he had lied as a favor to a confidential source. Hulmes told Surrick in a follow-up conversation that she had misunderstood his comments, according to Internal Affairs documents.
Internal Affairs did not sustain the allegations because it was Surrick's word against Hulmes' — and other officers backed Hulmes' account. They returned Hulmes and Officer Mark Bates, who claimed to have discovered the gun in the alley, to the street.
The Internal Affairs report was something that prosecutors, once again, had not shared with defense attorneys — a potential violation of the Brady doctrine requirement that prosecutors turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense.
"That information known to the DA, plus all of the other information that they've been hiding the past couple years about Hulmes, is another example of them violating the Brady doctrine," says David Rudovksy, a University of Pennsylvania Law School professor who frequently handles police-misconduct cases and is now advising Thomson. He also faults the Internal Affairs investigation for failing to explain "why an assistant district attorney, who is prosecuting these cases, would make up something like this."
In announcing the review of Hulmes' cases, DA spokesperson Jamerson wrote in an email that "apparently, the 2008 allegations were not designated for disclosure because the prior District Attorney's administration [under Lynne Abraham] declined prosecution and Internal Affairs found the allegations not sustained."
Surrick did make her complaint under Abraham, but the DA's Office dropped charges in the Warnock Street drug-and-gun case in March 2010, after Williams took over.
Jamerson would not explain what the review would entail, and Abraham did not respond to a request for comment.