NEWARK – The City of Camden has agreed to pay $3.5 million in damages to 88 people whose convictions were overturned because of widespread corruption in the Camden Police Department. The settlement stems from a series of lawsuits filed against Camden Police in federal district court and state superior court over the last two years, after five officers were charged with a number of federal civil rights violations from conduct involving evidence planting, fabrication of reports and evidence, and perjury.
The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of New Jersey filed one of those lawsuits on behalf of Joel Barnes, a Camden resident who was arrested in 2008 after police planted drugs on him.
“This prolonged campaign to plant evidence on innocent people was a true stain on Camden Police and represents one of the most serious forms of police corruption,” said Alexander Shalom, policy counsel for the ACLU-NJ. “Unfortunately, the systems that are designed to prevent corruption and protect the public eroded and allowed rogue officers to operate unabated for years.”
The Camden City Council approved the settlement at its meeting this week. The court has to approve the settlement. No date has been set yet for the court to review the agreement.
Three of the officers involved in the conspiracy, Jason Stetser, Kevin Parry and Dan Morris pleaded guilty in federal court to corruption. Officer Antonio Figueroa was convicted by a jury, and officer Robert Bayard was acquitted. The officers’ actions went undetected because of a breakdown in the department’s Internal Affairs unit, which was understaffed and used antiquated systems.
As a result, the 88 plaintiffs in the cases served a combined 109 years in prison on their overturned convictions. The corruption has also cost the city millions of dollars in legal fees.
“Because of the actions of these officers, and the Camden Police Department’s failure to identify and stop the corruption within its ranks, these men and women were deprived of their liberty and will never recoup the time they lost from their loved ones,” said Jason D. Williamson, staff attorney at the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project and co-counsel on the Barnes case. “We hope that other police departments will take note of what went wrong in Camden and take measures to prevent it from happening in their departments.”
Barnes, 30, a lifelong Camden resident, stopped by a friend’s house on Aug. 2, 2008, to help set up for a barbecue later that day. Police raided the home in search of illegal drugs. Barnes, along with other occupants in the house, was herded into the kitchen. An officer slipped handcuffs on Barnes and emptied Barnes’s pockets. There were no drugs. When officers repeatedly asked where the drugs were, Barnes answered truthfully, saying he did not know.
Figueroa pulled out a bag containing drugs and said, “Tell us where the shit’s at and we’ll make this disappear.”
When Barnes insisted he did not know if there were drugs in the house, the police supplied the incriminating evidence and charged him with possession with intent to distribute. On Feb. 23, 2009, fearing his testimony would not be believed, and facing the prospect of even more jail time if convicted at trial, he pleaded guilty to a crime he did not commit.
While in prison, Barnes read about the Camden corruption case and recognized the names of the officers involved. Figueroa and Bayard were among the officers who were present when Barnes was arrested.
On Feb. 2, 2010, the New Jersey Superior Court vacated Barnes’s conviction. Barnes was finally freed on June 8, 2010, with the help of the ACLU, but only after serving 418 days in prison.