A former narcotics detective repeatedly lied about drug sales he said he witnessed around Manhattan public housing, violating the trust of fellow officers and sending two people to jail for more than a year on cases built on false evidence, a prosecutor said on Thursday.
The former detective, Joseph Franco, who worked for 20 years in the New York Police Department, lied to officers in his unit and prosecutors in four separate cases, Samantha Dworken, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, said during opening statements of his trial in Manhattan Criminal Court. She said he claimed he saw drug sales that video evidence later proved he could not have witnessed.
“This was not a mistake,” Ms. Dworken said. “It was a pattern.”
Mr. Franco, 50, has been charged with six counts of perjury in the first degree, five counts of official misconduct and 15 counts of providing false documents or information to a public official or office. A conviction of perjury in the first degree is punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Mr. Franco’s trial comes amid sweeping efforts by prosecutors’ offices in the city to review cases that relied on police officers who were convicted of official misconduct and other crimes related to their work. Prosecutors in Brooklyn and Manhattan have moved to dismiss hundreds of cases tied to officers who were convicted of crimes.
The fallout that followed Mr. Franco’s arrest was especially dramatic. In Manhattan, prosecutors said they had moved to dismiss more than 100 cases tied to Mr. Franco. In the Bronx, where Mr. Franco once worked, the district attorney’s office said it had already dismissed 349 cases and expected the final number to reach more than 500.
In Brooklyn, the district attorney said it had moved to dismiss 90 cases tied to Mr. Franco.
Ms. Dworken said Mr. Franco’s lies began to be exposed in April 2018, when a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office assigned to one of the detective’s cases reviewed video footage outside a housing complex, where Mr. Franco’s narcotics team had conducted surveillance.
Mr. Franco told the prosecutor that he was across the street, where he observed a man selling cocaine to a woman at the entrance of the building. But when the prosecutor reviewed video footage of the area, there was no evidence the exchange had taken place where Mr. Franco said it had.
That case sparked an internal investigation that showed similar inconsistencies in three other cases going back to February 2017, Ms. Dworken said.
Mr. Franco’s actions ultimately deprived five defendants of their due process rights and forced prosecutors to dismiss their cases, Ms. Dworken said.
One woman who was charged with drug dealing after Mr. Franco said he saw her make a sale in a building lobby spent 15 months in jail before her conviction was vacated. The woman admitted she had sold drugs that day, but she had conducted the sale inside a stairwell so that no one would see her, Ms. Dworken said.
A man convicted of drug dealing after Mr. Franco claimed he saw him sell drugs was imprisoned for a year and a half, Ms. Dworken said.
She acknowledged that some people arrested as a result of Mr. Franco’s claims did possess or sell drugs, but she urged jurors to focus on the lies Mr. Franco told to get them charged, which turned them into victims.
“His lies were a poison that tainted any fair or legitimate case that could have been made against them,” she said.
Howard Tanner, Mr. Franco’s lawyer, described his client as an effective narcotics investigator whose job was to be as invisible as possible so that he would not be seen by the dealers he was targeting.
He was part of an “imprecise process” that did not allow him to take notes or record what he was seeing in real time, Mr. Tanner said. It is possible, Mr. Tanner said, that Mr. Franco was wrong when he later told supervisors and prosecutors about where precisely he saw drug exchanges.
“That still doesn’t make it a crime,” Mr. Tanner said, describing the prosecution as “second-guessing, Monday-morning quarterbacking by an overzealous district attorney’s office.”
Video evidence is not enough to prove Mr. Franco was lying, and indeed he had no motive to lie, Mr. Tanner said.
Mr. Franco’s only intent was to protect the “good men, women and children of these housing projects” and “take drug dealers who committed violent acts” off the street, he said.
Each of the five people whom the prosecutors described as victims admitted they had participated in drug deals, but got “get-out-of-jail-free cards” because prosecutors refused to believe Mr. Franco, Mr. Tanner said.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Joe’s on trial for doing his job,” Mr. Tanner said. “It’s not right.”