La Plata, MD – Was it political retaliation or mandated right?
That seems to be the key question in the civil jury trial in a tale of two sheriffs, Rex Coffey and Troy Berry.
A day after former Charles County Sheriff Rex Coffey testified that when he demoted Berry and Capt. David Saunders from the rank of captain to lieutenant five days after his 2010 re-election and showed them a Maryland Independent advertisement from 2006 in which both individuals were listed among officers supporting then-sheriff Fred Davis, “I told them I had put this behind me.”
Saunders contradicted that testimony Tuesday, Jan. 27, stating that when the 2010 meeting with Coffey took place, the sheriff showed him the advertisement and stated, “I never forgot who didn’t support me.”
Berry echoed that statement in his testimony in Charles County Circuit Court Wednesday, Jan. 28, saying that when Coffey demoted him, he told him it wasn’t in regard to his performance.
“He said I didn’t support him politically,” Berry said. “He showed me the ad and told me he never forgot who worked for his opponent. He also said I had too cozy of a relationship with the state’s attorney’s office.”
Berry beat Coffey for the office in last’s year’s primary by 64 percent and in emotional testimony said he was humiliated and felt degraded by the “demotion.”
His wife Amanda also testified that when her husband came home, he told her he had “been demoted because he didn’t support Coffey for re-election.”
The lawsuit will be decided by 10 jurors Friday after impassioned pleas from Berry’s attorney Timothy Maloney and Coffey’s, Jason L. Levine Jan. 29.
County policy may hinge on the outcome of the verdict and there are already rumblings that the jury’s decision could affect the future policy of the sheriff’s office. Maloney told the jury there is a lot riding on the outcome of this verdict.
“You are being asked, in a way, to set standards,” Maloney said in his closing arguments. “This is not just politics, this is far beyond Coffey and Berry. The question you have to answer is, should someone of rank in the sheriff’s office, some who have careers of 18, 20 or 30 years, have to worry every four years when a new sheriff is elected, are they going to be demoted, are they going to be put on midnight shift if they didn’t support him politically?
“Your verdict is going to determine the future of your law enforcement agency,” he said.
The four-day trial has seen dramatically different testimony from both sides of the fence, from former Charles County State’s Attorney Leonard C. Collins Jr., who Levine said “wanted to run both the state’s attorney’s office and the sheriff’s department,” to former officers under Coffey’s administration and Berry’s as well, legal advisor Phil Hinkle and Joseph “Buddy” Gibson. It gave an unprecedented look into the internal workings of the Charles County Sheriff’s Office from the rank and file and what is expected of them, and what happens to those who cross the line while on duty.
Levine stressed once again at closing arguments, has he had many times throughout the trial, “Sheriff Coffey didn’t want to hurt Troy Berry. He just wanted him off the command staff.” He pointed out Coffey’s actions to increase Berry’s salary three pay grades when he was demoted so that his salary would not be as adversely affected, and his decision to reverse an unsatisfactory performance evaluation that was never signed by Coffey or ever placed in his personal file. He dismissed the Brady Disclosures, saying the former sheriff never prevented Berry from making disclosures to then state’s attorney Collins, calling them the “red herring” of this case. Once again, Levine emphasized county code allowed the sheriff to remove members of his command staff “with or without cause,” and that Coffey never told Berry he couldn’t go to Collins with Brady disclosures.
Maloney, in his final argument, stressed, “He [Coffey] kept the ad on the wall ‘so he could put it behind him.’ That’s absurd,” he said. “He never put it behind him.”
He said Berry had a “constitutional duty” to report to the state’s attorney information regarding officers who had given false testimony in cases, among them Joseph “Buddy” Gibson, who resigned from the CCSO in 2001 and whose name was on a list of officers Berry was investigating along with Collins, was also was the officer who gave Berry an “unsatisfactory” performance evaluation, citing this connections to the state’s attorney office and the sharing of confidential information regarding officers.
Before sending everyone home after four long days, Maloney pointed to Judge Maureen Lamasney.
“She is the judge of the law,” Maloney said. “You are the judge of this case.”
There are those who would say Levine, who also represents the state of Maryland, has the law on his side, but as many a Charles County Circuit Court judge can tell you, no one can ever tell what a jury will do.
Contact Joseph Norris at email@example.com