criminal justice

David Simon Made Baltimore Detectives Famous. Now Their Cases Are Falling Apart.

Has reality caught up to the “Murder Police”?

The Wire’s Bunk Moreland (played by Wendell Pierce) and Dennis Mello (played by Jay Landsman, the real-life inspiration for Bunk’s boss). Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; HBO
The Wire’s Bunk Moreland (played by Wendell Pierce) and Dennis Mello (played by Jay Landsman, the real-life inspiration for Bunk’s boss). Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; HBO

This story was produced in partnership with the Garrison Project, an independent, nonpartisan organization addressing the crisis of mass incarceration and policing.

At 7:45 p.m. on December 27, 1986, Faheem Ali was shot dead in the streets of Baltimore. No physical evidence tied anyone to the killing, and no eyewitnesses immediately came forward. But Baltimore homicide detectives Thomas Pellegrini, Richard Fahlteich, and Oscar “The Bunk” Requer were not going to give up easily.

Requer was later immortalized as a central character in David Simon’s iconic HBO series The Wire. As Simon wrote in the afterword for his acclaimed 1991 nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, Requer “lives on in Wendell Pierce’s portrayal of the legendary Bunk Moreland on The Wire, right down to the ubiquitous cigar.” Pellegrini, meanwhile, was the jumping-off point for Detective Tim Bayliss, a character in the long-running television show Homicide: Life on the Street, which was inspired by Simon’s book. Requer and Pellegrini are among a constellation of Baltimore Police Department officers who have, through Simon’s work, defined what it means to be a homicide detective in the popular imagination — and whose biggest cases are starting to fall apart or have been overturned.

Determined to find out who killed Faheem Ali, Pellegrini, Fahlteich, and Requer homed in on 12-year-old Otis Robinson, who was outside when the shooting happened. They allegedly brought Robinson and his mother to the police station and separated them, questioning the seventh-grader alone. Robinson told the detectives that when he left his house to go to the corner store, he saw a few men across the street in conversation, though he didn’t notice much in the dark. As he continued walking toward the store, he heard a gunshot and fled.

Even though Robinson insisted he could not identify a shooter, the detectives showed him an array of photos, including one of Gary Washington, a 25-year-old Black man, according to a lawsuit Washington filed against the city and the detectives in 2019. Robinson knew Washington, but he made clear that he did not see who shot Ali. The detectives wrote down this statement.

Then, according to the lawsuit, the questioning took a turn. “Cooperate,” the detectives allegedly told the 12-year-old, “or you’ll never see your mother again.” Unless Robinson identified the shooter, the officers allegedly continued, he could be charged with homicide.  Robinson “crumbled under the pressure” of threats from the detectives, according to the lawsuit, and signed a second statement falsely identifying Washington as the shooter. His first statement was never turned over to prosecutors or defense attorneys for Washington. (Attorneys for the defendants have denied liability in court pleadings but declined to comment, stating that they were “constrained to speak only through the judicial process.”)

Five months later, Pellegrini testified at a pretrial hearing. The lawsuit says he “committed perjury” by telling the court that Robinson was not threatened or coerced when he implicated Washington. The next day, Washington was tried on first-degree murder and weapons charges. On the witness stand, Robinson testified that Washington was the shooter. Washington’s attorneys called multiple witnesses who testified that the killer was a man named Lawrence Thomas, but the jury believed Robinson. As a judge later wrote, “For all intents and purposes, Otis Robinson was the state’s entire case.” Washington was convicted of Ali’s murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Robinson recanted his testimony in 1996 to an investigator for Washington. He did the same in court in 1999 and again in 2017, explaining he had been strong-armed by detectives. In 2018, a judge overturned Washington’s conviction. In 2019, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges against him. Lauren Lipscomb, the deputy state’s attorney who oversees both the Conviction Integrity Unit and Police Integrity Unit, stated, “We respect the finding of the judge who found Robinson’s recantation credible. Evidence insufficiency is not the same as factual innocence and evidence insufficiency is the reason we dismissed.”

Washington, now 57, walked free. He spent more than three decades in prison. Whether the detectives who put him there will face any repercussions remains to be seen.

Since 1989, 25 men convicted of murder in Baltimore have been exonerated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Official misconduct was present in 22 of the cases. “The history of BPD officers and detectives withholding exculpatory evidence from the accused, coercing and threatening witnesses, fabricating evidence, and intentionally failing to conduct meaningful investigations is decades long,” wrote the attorneys for Clarence Shipley, a Baltimore man who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit before he was exonerated in 2018. “BPD’s misconduct in [Shipley’s] case,” they said, is “yet another chapter in the long story of BPD’s pattern and practice of wrongdoing during homicide investigations.”

Baltimore homicide detectives have coerced witnesses (including children), fabricated evidence, ignored alternative suspects, and buried all of that information deep in their files, attorneys for Washington and other exonerees say. “So much of this is a war mentality that is infused with a strong racist edge,” said Michele Nethercott, who retired in July as the director of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project. “It is a war out here and we just do whatever we have to do and if that means threatening kids and threatening witnesses, we will do it. They use the same tactics on the witnesses as they do on the suspects.”

More than a dozen such cases can be traced directly to misconduct by the Baltimore Police Department in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of the detectives accused of being bad actors — Pellegrini, Requer, Fahlteich, Donald Kincaid, Gary Dunnigan, Terrence McLarney, Jay Landsman, and several others — were chronicled in Simon’s book Homicide. Some of them, like Pellegrini, Landsman, and Requer, inspired beloved television characters on Homicide: Life on the Street or, later, The Wire.

On The Wire, Bunk’s supervisor was “Jay Landsman” just as in real life, Requer’s boss was Detective Sergeant Jay Landsman. Simon says the character John Munch in Homicide: Life on the Street was “a combination” of Dave Brown and Terry McLarney (though a caption in the 2006 edition of Homicide identifies Munch as being based on Landsman, too). McLarney has also been accused of misconduct. Brown, who died in 2013, is implicated in the suppression of evidence in Shipley’s lawsuit, though he is not named as a defendant. The lawsuit says that Brown and others “acted with impunity in an environment in which they were not adequately supervised” by McLarney and Landsman.

These men became bold-faced names in Homicide, Simon’s chronicle of the year he spent with their elite unit in 1988. The suspects say little other than to issue blanket denials or outright lies. And the dead of course cannot speak. So it is the “murder police” — an expletive-spewing, gallows-humored brotherhood — who take center stage. In Simon’s telling, they are stubborn, hard-drinking, and at times highly unpleasant. But the reader also comes to believe that they are dogged in their pursuit of justice.

“[Y]ou are one of thirty-six investigators entrusted with the pursuit of the most extraordinary crimes: the theft of a human life,” Simon writes. “You speak for the dead. You avenge those lost to the world. Your paycheck may come from fiscal services, but goddammit, after six beers you can pretty much convince yourself that you work for the Lord himself.”

Read through the lens of what we now know about the criminal legal system, however, the book reveals a dark side to this God complex: an arrogance, overreach, and ends-justify-the-means mentality that resulted in wrongful convictions and ruined lives. The excruciating pressure Otis Robinson said that detectives used on him is on florid display.

In one scene, Simon describes how Pellegrini and Landsman attempt to solve the killing of a man named Roy Johnson. Potential witnesses are brought in, including a girl wearing a yellow miniskirt. Looking her over, Pellegrini thinks, Helluva body, too. When she refuses to cooperate, Landsman screams at her, “YOU’RE A LYING BITCH.”

Berating her fails to produce results, but Landsman continues, “You just got a charge, you lying piece of shit.” Then, as he leaves her alone in a cramped interrogation room, he calls out to Pellegrini, “NEUTRON THIS BITCH.” This is merely a request for a swab of her hands, but Simon writes that “Landsman wants to leave her stewing on it, hoping she’s in that box imagining that someone’s about to irradiate her until she glows.” It’s just one example of “the Landsman blitzkrieg,” which Simon tells the reader “often succeeded simply because of its speed.”

Detectives from Homicide worked on the cases of at least six of the 25 men exonerated for murder who are identified in the National Registry. One man, James Owens, was convicted in 1988 for the murder of a young woman and served 20 years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA evidence. James Thompson Jr., the state’s star witness against Owens, was interrogated multiple times by Pellegrini, his supervisor Landsman, and Detective Dunnigan. Each time, Thompson told a different story. The final version came after hours of coercion by detectives “to force him to fabricate a story,” according to a lawsuit filed by Owens. In 2018, Baltimore officials settled with Owens for $9 million, the largest settlement in the city’s history.

To date, legal settlements related to the Baltimore homicide unit have cost Maryland taxpayers at least $45 million. Eight exonerees have pending federal civil rights lawsuits. The detectives deny all wrongdoing, and their lawyers declined to comment for this story.

The list of wrongful convictions is growing: On December 21, Paul Madison’s conviction was vacated by a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge after he spent 30 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Early this month, Baltimore announced an $8 million settlement to the family of Malcolm Bryant, who served 17 years for a murder he did not commit and died in 2017 at the age of 42.

Other cases that are not counted as exonerations by the National Registry raise similar concerns about Baltimore’s homicide detectives. Among them is Wendell Griffin, convicted of the shooting death of James William Wise in 1982. In a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in 2013, Griffin accused homicide detectives Kincaid and Brown, along with Landsman’s brother Jerry, of suppressing witness statements “excluding Mr. Griffin as the shooter.” In 2012, when public-records requests revealed that exculpatory evidence had never been shared with the prosecution or defense, Griffin accepted a plea to time served rather than face a retrial — and it was on that basis that his federal lawsuit was dismissed. While the State’s Attorney’s Office has previously cited that the known evidence supports Griffin’s guilty plea, Griffin is still fighting to clear his name. Lipscomb stated, “Our position is that it is a resolved case and I have no further comment.”

The Baltimore Police Department is not an outlier. In recent years, similarly ingrained misconduct has been revealed at police departments in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Chicago. What is different is the veneer of gritty integrity that has long burnished the images of Baltimore’s homicide detectives.

“Overall, following those detectives on other cases from January 1988 to December 1988, I did not see police work in which evidence was purposely mishandled or in which exculpatory evidence was purposely ignored or obscured,” Simon wrote in an email to New York. “That may be because as a civilian, I didn’t recognize such moments, or because my presence during casework made such behavior prohibitive. I can’t say.

Homicide recounts interrogation methods by detectives that few police departments would endorse today. These brutal, dehumanizing tactics come across as an ugly but necessary strategy to secure convictions. In Homicide, Simon writes that, in 1988, the Baltimore police’s murder clearance rate was 74 percent — in 2020, by contrast, the department’s clearance rate was 40.3 percent — and the reader is given no reason to believe that the numbers represent anything other than the guilty getting caught. If anything, Simon wrote at the time, Baltimore juries convicted too seldomly. “In truth,” he writes, “juries want to doubt.” As a result, “the chances of putting the wrong man in prison become minimal.” (In an email, Simon wrote that he would now reconsider his skepticism about the likelihood of wrongful convictions: “I minimized the chance of an investigative or prosecutorial error — never mind purposed misconduct — making it all the way to a jury and conviction; that chance is more substantial than I once believed.”)

Three decades later, the portrait of policing in Homicide lands differently. Maryland has just over 6 million residents, but in 2019 it ranked sixth in exonerations, tying with Florida, which has a population of nearly 22 million. Only Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, Michigan, and California had higher totals. We are regularly informed of high-profile exonerations in Baltimore and elsewhere, including the men wrongly convicted of killing Malcolm X; Anthony Broadwater, cleared in the 1981 rape of best-selling author Alice Sebold; and Kevin Strickland, freed in November after spending 43 years in prison for a triple murder in Kansas City, Missouri, he did not commit.

But when Homicide was published in 1991, DNA testing was in its infancy, the Innocence Project did not exist, and wrongful convictions were viewed by many as a fever dream. In 1993, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, roundly rejecting the argument that a prisoner could bring an appeal based solely on his innocence, wrote, “With any luck, we shall avoid ever having to face this embarrassing question again.”

In the criminal legal system, treating child suspects and witnesses like hardened adults was also a common practice, even though children are easily intimidated and vulnerable to coercion, and therefore likely to say whatever police want. The 1990s was the era of the “super-predator.” Coined by the Princeton political scientist John J. Dilulio, super-predators were conscienceless child criminals who roamed the streets committing rape, murder, and mayhem. To protect society — and especially their own communities — they had to be locked away.

Consider the case of Ransom Watkins, Alfred Chestnut, and Andrew Stewart Jr., all 16 when they were convicted in Baltimore in 1984 for the shooting death of 14-year-old DeWitt Duckett in his junior-high school so they could steal his jacket. Watkins, Chestnut, and Stewart were sentenced to serve life terms in an adult prison.

Midway through Homicide, a dramatic confrontation takes place between Watkins and Donald Kincaid, the Baltimore homicide detective who brought him down. It is the summer of 1988, and the Baltimore police have been enlisted to investigate a riot at the Maryland Penitentiary, where Watkins is serving his life sentence. Landsman and Kincaid set up shop in the deputy warden’s office, questioning a steady stream of shackled suspects. Most of the prisoners decline to speak with them, some less politely than others.

Watkins — described by Simon then as “a thick-framed nineteen-year-old monster” — has something to say, and it is not about the riot. Staring down Kincaid, the teenager asks, “How the hell do you sleep at night?” To which Kincaid replies, “I sleep pretty good. How do you sleep?”

Watkins retorts, “How do you think I sleep? How do I sleep when you put me here for something I didn’t do?” Angry and on the verge of tears, Watkins continues, “You lied then and you lyin’ now.” Kincaid responds that Watkins is guilty. The teenager tries to argue, but Landsman cuts him off, calling for the guards to take him away. “We’re done with this asshole,” he says.

In November 2019, a Baltimore judge found Watkins, Chestnut, and Stewart factually innocent after the State’s Attorney’s Office conceded they were wrongfully convicted.

The case against Watkins, Chestnut, and Stewart — known as “the Harlem Park Three” — turned on the purported eyewitness testimony of four middle-schoolers. All have since recanted, claiming that they testified falsely under relentless threats and pressure from Kincaid and his partners John Barrick and Bryn Joyce. One of the witnesses, Ron Bishop, recently told The New Yorker that “if I didn’t tell them who did it, I could be charged with accessory to murder.” Bishop, 14 at the time, grew desperate: “I was thinking, Should I get a gun and blow my brains out? I was torn between committing suicide or, you know, go into court and tell these bunch of lies.”

Lipscomb called the detectives’ conduct in the Harlem Park Three case “appalling,” and said that “what was even more troubling was that they were putting these juvenile witnesses in a patrol car and taking them to [the police station] without their parents after they had given interviews to detectives with their parents in their homes. So there is one story when the parents are present and it appears that the detectives were not happy with that story and so they took the teenagers down to homicide.” According to Lipscomb, one witness, now an adult, heard his mother screaming outside the interview room demanding to know why police had taken her son without her knowledge.

Collectively, the Harlem Park Three served 108 years in prison. In March 2020, the state of Maryland awarded the three men nearly $9 million. In August 2020, they filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking unspecified damages for the violation of their civil rights. Attorneys for the three alleged that Kincaid’s investigation was sloppy and biased — Kincaid himself testified that he took no notes during the interviews. And according to the State’s Attorney’s Office, Kincaid told Watkins, “You have two things against you — you’re Black and I have a badge.” (Kincaid has denied all wrongdoing). “This triple exoneration,” their lawyers wrote, “is the largest wrongful conviction case in American history.”

While the Harlem Park Three grew into middle-age men behind bars, Michael Willis, the alleged murderer, went free. This, too, is attributed to the detectives’ misconduct. As Kincaid and his team pursued Watkins, Chestnut, and Stewart, they had evidence implicating Willis in Duckett’s murder, including witness statements that Willis threw away a gun and wore the victim’s jacket, all on the day of the murder. (Willis was murdered in 2002.) None of that information was turned over to the defense, as required by the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brady v. Maryland.

Simon says that he accurately reported the encounter between Watkins and Kincaid.  He also wrote, “I didn’t cover any exonerated cases in 1988, the year I was permitted in the homicide unit. So my first-hand knowledge of the casework in question is nil.”

Watkins remembers the encounter differently, telling New York that Kincaid wanted him to provide information on the prison riot and that he didn’t even recognize Kincaid at first. He also disputed Simon’s physical description of him, stating that he was not particularly big at the time. “I think the word ‘monster,’ frankly of all the people we’ve seen come in and out, I would not call him a monster,” said Lipscomb. “This is a soft spoken, good-natured person.”

Just last month, Landsman, made famous in Homicide for his all-caps battering-ram interrogation method, became a defendant in yet another wrongful-conviction lawsuit. In a complaint filed in federal court on December 14, Shipley, the Baltimore man who served 27 years for a murder he did not commit, alleges that Landsman, McLarney, Robert Bowman, and Richard James — all depicted in Homicide — violated his rights and caused his wrongful conviction in the 1991 murder of Kevin Smith.

The complaint alleges that Landsman and McLarney, another squad leader in Homicide, failed to supervise when at least one detective hit 18-year-old Allan Scott over the head, chained him to a chair in the interrogation room, and refused him medical treatment for hours. The lawsuit alleges Scott gave false testimony in exchange for leniency related to pending theft charges. Shipley’s lawsuit also alleges that the detectives buried evidence implicating the real killer, Larry Davis, who died in 2005.

The lawsuit includes a photograph of a handwritten note from a Baltimore Police employee to Homicide detective David John Brown memorializing an October 26, 1991, phone call with the victim’s brother, Edward Smith. The note reads, “shooter is Larry Davis.” According to the lawsuit, “by the time trial began, the Officer Defendants had changed Edward Smith’s story from implicating Larry Davis to implicating Clarence Shipley. To secure the conviction of Mr. Shipley, the defendants made sure that key evidence, such as the note above, was not provided to Mr. Shipley and his lawyer. As a consequence, when Edward Smith took the stand and pointed the blame at Mr. Shipley, Mr. Shipley’s lawyer had no meaningful way to show that the morning after the murder, Mr. Smith had implicated Larry Davis — not Clarence Shipley.”

Homicide, now three decades old, is very much a product of a particular time and place in the annals of American criminal law. Nethercott, the former head of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project, says it is also “a cautionary tale for embedded journalism.” In the foreword to a 2006 edition of Homicide, writer and longtime Simon collaborator Richard Price addressed this critique: “Are writers like us, writers who are obsessed with chronicling in fact and fiction the minutiae of life in the urban trenches of America, writers who are in fact dependent in large part on the noblesse of the cops to see what we have to see, are we (oh shit …) police buffs?”

Price determines they aren’t, and Simon points out that his next book, The Corner, takes the point of view of those ”being policed and hunted” during the height of the war on drugs. And The Wire provides a kaleidoscope of perspectives from beautifully drawn characters, including cops who are blatantly violent and racist, which is central to why the show was groundbreaking and beloved by so many. “I believe in writing from the point of view of characters as a function of embedded narrative,” Simon said. “This doesn’t mean you don’t include the bad with the good, or change outcomes, but it does demand that you do your job and deliver the worldview of your protagonists for all to see.” Simon said that in both Homicide and The Corner, “the same process of empathetic embedding was employed regardless of where I stood.”

Still, Price’s question is worth considering. As Price noted, the kind of intimacy necessarily created by this kind of prolonged and up-close exposure gives rise to “an unavoidable empathy” for the writer’s subjects. It can also lead to a story that allows some characters the full complexity of three dimensions while flattening others, depriving them of their humanity and readers of the full story.

The detectives of Homicide, for their part, seem to have long been comfortable with Simon’s reporting. In an afterword to the 2006 edition, Simon wrote that they “requested remarkably few changes” when he showed them the manuscript. McLarney, who was later promoted to lieutenant, wrote in an addendum that he and his colleagues were “gratified” by Simon’s portrayal.

Nor do the detectives appear to have significant regrets about their careers. Jay Landsman retired in 1994 to work as a law enforcement officer for the county, where he was promoted to lieutenant in 2015. Reflecting back on his time in the Baltimore Police Department’s homicide unit, he told the Baltimore Sun, “I never had a bad day down there, I loved it.”

Did David Simon Glorify Baltimore’s Detectives?