In January 2013, police raided the home of a Cleveland drug dealer, saying in a search warrant that an informant had recently bought crack cocaine there.
But the drug dealer had surveillance cameras that proved the officers were lying. He gave the tapes to his lawyer, who showed the FBI. The feds then worked to uncover a massive scandal of a rogue street-crimes unit that robbed and framed drug suspects who felt they had no choice but plead guilty to fraudulent charges.
Four years later, authorities are still unwinding the damage.
Three cops who worked for the city of East Cleveland are in prison. Cases against 22 alleged drug dealers have been dismissed. Authorities are searching for another 21 people who are eligible to have their convictions tossed. On top of those injustices, there is a slim chance that any of them will be fully reimbursed, because the disgraced officers and their former employer don't have the money.
"I always took it on the chin when I got arrested for something I know I did. But when a cop lies to get you in prison, that's a different story," said Kenneth Blackshaw, who was arrested in a 2013 traffic stop and spent two years behind bars before his drug conviction was overturned.
The detectives, Blackshaw said, knew just who to target: people with long criminal records who knew their word would never stand up against a police officer's. He is trying to recoup all that he lost, including $100,000 the cops took from his home in an illegal search.
"A person like myself doesn't stand a fighting chance for his freedom when he stands accused of something he didn't do," Blackshaw, 51, said.
Drugs, race and graft
The Cleveland-area victims are among thousands of people who have been exonerated in cases involving police graft over the last three decades countrywide, from California to Texas, and from New Jersey to Ohio. In Philadelphia, more than 800 people have had their convictions dismissed. The Rampart scandal in Los Angeles in the late 1990s led to at least 150 tossed cases.
These "group exonerations" are distinct from the stories of people cleared by DNA or new evidence, a movement led by crusading lawyers who dig into individual cases to expose faulty forensics, false confessions, mistaken identities and official misconduct.
Group exonerations rarely attract much attention outside of the communities where they occur. They typically involve people convicted of relatively minor crimes that resulted in short prison sentences or terms of probation. The victims often have criminal records and, if not for the corrupt methods that led to their convictions, may actually have been guilty of a crime.
There is no official record of group exonerations, and researchers believe that in some police corruption scandals, authorities don't bother to identify tainted convictions — or tell victims they could be cleared. Even so, the number of people wrongly convicted under such circumstances likely exceeds the more than 2,000 individual exonerations recorded since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
The vast majority of victims are black — a result that points to national trends in American drug-law enforcement researchers at the registry said in a report issued last month. "As any forger knows, the way to create convincing fakes is to make them look like the real thing," the report's authors wrote. "For drug cases, that means arresting mostly black suspects."
The impact is profound. Group exonerations not only undermine crime fighting efforts, but also destroy faith in police and fuel the belief that the justice system treats poor, minority communities unfairly.
"What I saw in this case is a legitimate reason for these folks to have these feelings toward law enforcement," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ed Feran, who prosecuted the East Cleveland officers.
Setups and thefts
East Cleveland is a city in distress, much more so than Cleveland, its larger Rust Belt neighbor. More than 40 percent of its 17,843 residents live in poverty, almost all of them black. Mass demolitions of abandoned homes has left the 3-square-mile city pocked with vacant lots. The median household income is $19,592. The local government is near bankruptcy.
That is the atmosphere in which the rogue street crimes unit operated.
After the FBI got tipped-off in early 2013, agents had the drug dealer who caught officers lying about buying crack at his house wear a wire. His secret recordings caught one of the officers shaking him down for $3,000 during a traffic stop.
From there, investigators uncovered more frame-ups and thefts. They documented several of them in an October 2015 indictment that charged the rogue unit's commander, Torris Moore, and two underlings, Antonio Malone and Eric Jones, with illegally searching and stealing from alleged drug dealers and faking reports to cover up their crimes.
The indictment included charges that the officers had arrested an alleged drug dealer identified as K.B. The following day, while K.B. sat in jail, the indictment said, the officers broke into his room at his grandmother's house and took $100,000, keeping a third of it and turning in the rest.
Blackshaw did not know his case was under investigation. He learned of the officers' arrest by watching the news in prison. He called home and an aunt told him she'd already talked to his lawyer. "We're working on getting you out of there," he recalled her saying.
A feeling of vindication washed over Blackshaw. He had agreed to go to prison even though he didn't think his arrest was legitimate. He has a long history of drug offenses, and his charge, possession of more than 100 grams of cocaine, carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 11 years behind bars. He maintains he did not have any drugs on him when he was busted.
He'd told his lawyer he wanted to go to trial. But his lawyer, Terry Gilbert, had advised against it, reminding him that it would be his word against the officers'. So Blackshaw pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and received a five-year prison sentence.
"Neither of us ever dreamed that these cops could be crooked enough to steal money and lie about it, and even if they did, who would believe Kenneth Blackshaw?" Gilbert recalled. But, as it turns out, the officers lied in the police report and to prosecutors while defending their illegal search.
Most of the victims mentioned in the federal indictment didn't have private lawyers to push for their release. But the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office had just formed a Conviction Integrity Unit, which helped make sure all of the convictions were vacated. Blackshaw was released from prison in February 2016.
All three officers were sentenced to prison: Moore got nine years, Malone six and Jones nearly four. In a tearful courtroom apology, Moore said she'd turned rogue in 2011.
That revelation prompted the Conviction Integrity Unit to review all of the officers' work since 2011. They came up with dozens of suspect cases. In some, the officers cited the use of confidential informants without proving their existence. In others, money used for undercover drug purchases, or money seized in arrests or raids, was not properly logged, raising questions about where the cash ended up.
Each of the defendants, like Blackshaw, had pleaded guilty. Now they were all eligible to have their cases dismissed.
Some of the victims had likely committed drug offenses. But because the entire process was corroded, the cases could no longer be defended in court. Justice required their dismissal.
"We didn't go all the way to determine whether they were factually innocent or not," Jose Torres, who heads the unit, said. "We were convinced that they were legally innocent, and that's enough for us."
Search for victims
So far, authorities have identified 43 people whose convictions deserved to be tossed. But in order for that to happen, they or a lawyer representing them needs to appear in court to ask a judge to dismiss the charges.
Working with the county public defender's office, they've only been able to dismiss convictions for 22 people, Torres said. They've tracked down a couple of others who are expected to appear in court soon. The rest either haven't been found or don't want to come forward.
In each case, defense lawyers have insisted on protecting the victim's right to sue for damages. But whether they get any award remains to be seen.
Blackshaw, out of prison for more than a year, says he's trying to start a commercial cleaning business. He is grateful to be released, but he lost two years of freedom.
And he is still fighting for the rest of his money.