In early April, as an independent investigation against Tisbury Police Officer Mark Santon was wrapping up, which showed he lied, he gave sworn testimony at the trial of Carlos Stevenson. Mr. Stevenson had been charged with sexual assaults that were investigated by Officer Santon.
Officer Santon was allowed to testify even though a police officer accused of lying can jeopardize a conviction, according to a bulletin issued in 2016 by the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association that urges police chiefs to fire cops caught being untruthful as it renders an officer ineffective as a witness.
But the topic of Officer Santon’s investigation wasn’t raised, and neither were the officer’s past infractions, even though the office of Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe was well aware of the ongoing investigation against its key witness, and had doubts about putting him under oath. What went on in that Edgartown courtroom was the collision of two Island officials under intense scrutiny — Officer Santon and assistant district attorney Laura Marshard, with a man’s future at stake.
Ms. Marshard, the prosecutor in the Stevenson case, was facing allegations of prosecutorial misconduct before the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers in a case that’s still pending. Multiple sources have told The Times that Ms. Marshard never informed Mr. Stevenson’s attorneys that Officer Santon was under investigation in a probe that found he violated department rules and was untruthful three times.
Officer Santon was being investigated for a Jan. 27 arrest where the woman prisoner attempted suicide in the back of his cruiser while he was inside the Edgartown jail securing his firearm.
Mr. Stevenson said his attorney, Janice Bassil, has told him not to talk about the case, and John Oh, co-counsel on the Stevenson case, referred all questions to Ms. Bassil.
Ms. Bassil has not returned repeated phone calls or responded to a detailed email seeking comment on Officer Santon’s testimony.
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe said Ms. Bassil was aware of Officer Santon’s leave from the department because she had difficulty issuing a subpoena for him to testify.
Typically, police officers who investigate crimes are called as prosecution witnesses, but in this case Officer Santon, the lone witness prosecutors relied on to indict Mr. Stevenson, was considered a liability, and the prosecution considered moving ahead without him.
Ms. Marshard told First Assistant District Attorney Michael Trudeau about the internal investigation against Officer Santon, and Mr. Trudeau advised her to avoid calling the officer to the stand, Mr. O’Keefe told The Times Tuesday. “Our preference would be not to call someone under a cloud,” Mr. O’Keefe said.
Not only had Officer Santon been under investigation at the time of Mr. Stevenson’s trial, he had also been disciplined in 2015 after an internal investigation. At that time, Officer Santon was suspended for two days, one day for repeating a story about a superior officer being involved in a domestic assault that turned out to be fabricated. In addition, Officer Santon, who had been demoted from his position as detective, faced another one-day suspension because when he turned in his department laptop, the default language had been altered.
Mr. O’Keefe said he was unaware of the 2015 discipline that Officer Santon faced, and isn’t sure whether the defense attorneys knew about it either.
According to a 2016 bulletin issued by the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and obtained by The Times, an officer’s background, particularly disciplinary actions, is exculpatory evidence that must be shared with the defense.
“It is clear that under prevailing case law, and the rules governing criminal procedure before both state and federal courts, the prosecution must disclose exculpatory information, including information which bears upon the credibility of any witness (e.g. police witnesses), to the defendant even if no specific request for that information is made,” the bulletin issued by the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association states. “Failure to do so could result in a new trial.”
In this case it’s moot, because Mr. Stevenson was found not guilty, but it could have been grounds for appeal had he been convicted.
“Naturally, any officer engaging in such untruthfulness should be terminated or permanently removed from any possible activity where the officer could be called upon to be a witness to any action,” the bulletin states.
Mr. O’Keefe said there was no obligation for Ms. Marshard to make the defense aware of the 2017 investigation into Officer Santon because the investigation was not completed until May, after the trial had been completed.
“There was no finding of what this officer did or didn’t do until long after the trial was over,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “The mere fact that he was on administrative leave, there is no rule that would suggest that had to be disclosed to anyone.”
The district attorney compared the police department’s investigation into Officer Santon to a grand jury investigation being kept private until an indictment is issued.
“Disclosing it would be inappropriate on the mere allegation,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “Matters are kept secret so reputations aren’t called into question.”
The timing of the investigation and its conclusion doesn’t match Mr. O’Keefe’s recollection.
Arthur Parker, a retired police chief who operates Billingsgate Associates, completed his investigation April 13, one day before an emotional Mr. Stevenson was acquitted by a Dukes County jury.
In two separate phone interviews, Mr. O’Keefe said the investigation of Officer Santon was common knowledge on the Island. “I’m told that everybody over there knew it, including defense counsel,” he said.
The Times first reported Officer Santon was on paid administrative leave on May 12. A disciplinary hearing was held by the Tisbury board of selectmen on May 24.
Mr. O’Keefe told The Times he was under the impression Officer Santon was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the internal investigation found he was untruthful three times and acted in a manner unbecoming a police officer. The Times has learned that selectmen received a recommendation that Officer Santon be fired, but instead, he was suspended without pay for five days. He had been out on paid leave for more than 10 weeks during the investigation.
If she indeed knew about the investigation or past infractions, Ms. Bassil never mentioned them during her cross-examination of Officer Santon, which would have been a way to discredit his testimony. She questioned Officer Santon’s investigation, questioning why the officer never seized Mr. Stevenson’s laptop or did DNA tests on a sofa.
Mr. O’Keefe said he couldn’t explain why Ms. Bassil didn’t bring up Officer Santon’s past or the ongoing investigation if she knew about it. “You’d have to ask her,” he said.
Ms. Bassil was a partner in a law firm, Carney-Bassil, that Mr. O’Keefe hired to defend him when his name was linked to a federal gambling probe. Mr. O’Keefe was cleared of any wrongdoing in 2012, according to the Cape Cod Times. Campaign finance reports show Mr. O’Keefe paid the Carney-Bassil firm more than $25,000 from his campaign account in recent years for “legal representation.”
Ms. Bassil is now the lead attorney at Bassil and Budreau in Boston.
New details from unredacted report
On that night in January when a woman in his custody nearly took her own life, Officer Santon’s first call was to his colleague, an official in the department union, instead of to his supervisor.
The call was made to Officer Jeremie Rogers, a steward in the union, and lasted four minutes, according to the report. Records show the call was made cell phone to cell phone, rather than to the police station, as Officer Santon initially told an independent investigator.
The Times received an updated copy of the independent investigation after appealing to the Massachusetts Supervisor of Public Records. In the first copy released by the town, all names of witnesses interviewed, including police officers, were redacted. The town withheld the names but provided no exemption for excluding them, which is required by the Massachusetts Public Records Law.
While Officer Santon was inside securing his weapon, according to the report, the woman freed one arm from her handcuffs and wrapped a cord from a hooded sweatshirt around her neck. When Officer Santon and sheriff’s deputy Lt. Simone Damaceno arrived at the car, the woman was unresponsive. She was revived and taken to the hospital, where she made a full recovery.
Officer Santon told the private investigator that he thought he called the police department and Officer Rogers picked up.
That’s one of three times Officer Santon was untruthful during the independent investigation, according to Mr. Parker’s report.
“A review of Officer Santon’s telephone records revealed he called Officer Rogers’ personal cell phone with a call that lasted for a 4-minute duration,” Mr. Parker’s report states.
Officer Rogers initially told Mr. Parker he heard about the incident in a face-to-face meeting with Officer Santon, but later recalled talking to him by phone, according to the report.
Mr. Parker pointed out two additional times Officer Santon was untruthful during his investigation — once when he was asked whether Lt. Damaceno questioned him about the condition of the prisoner, based on a past arrest. The second time was in reporting how long he claimed being in the booking area to his supervisor, Sgt. Chris Haberkost, telling him that he left the woman alone for only five minutes when Mr. Parker’s investigation pegged the timing at more than 13 minutes, according to the report.
Police Chief Daniel Hanavan has repeatedly declined to comment, referring questions to town administrator Jay Grande, who has also declined to comment on the case, calling it a personnel matter.
The town of Tisbury had the authority to terminate Officer Santon for being untruthful, but selectmen told The Times in the aftermath that they had questions about Mr. Parker’s report.
That 26-page bulletin issued by the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association details why a police officer found to be lying should be terminated, including a reference to the SJC case.
“Law enforcement professionals are held to a higher standard than the citizens they have sworn to protect and serve,” the bulletin states. “In times when law enforcement legitimacy is being criticized and officers find themselves under a societal microscope, it is important to ensure that law enforcement professionals adhere to a strict code of truthfulness. As many already know, requiring truthfulness of officers not only comports with public policy, ethics and notions of morality, but also the law.”
An important function of police is maintaining a feeling of security, the bulletin states. “To that end, it is extremely important for the police to gain and preserve the public trust, maintain public confidence in the integrity of police officers, and avoid an abuse of power by law enforcement officials.”
The bulletin cites nearly a dozen reasons why an officer’s truthfulness is important, chief among them the ability to testify in cases where they issue criminal charges.
More records withheld
Mr. Parker, who was paid $8,000 to investigate Officer Santon’s actions on the night of the arrest, said he could not speak with The Times without the town’s authorization.
Mr. Parker was not present for Officer Santon’s disciplinary hearing, and Mr. Grande declined a request by The Times to speak with Mr. Parker about his report. “I’m going to have to say no,” Mr. Grande said.
On Thursday, the town refused to release more records and, defying a letter from Supervisor of Public Records Rebecca S. Murray, did not specify the responsive documents it has and the reasons they are being withheld.
“The Town must clarify which responsive records it possesses. If it intends to withhold any records, it must explain with specificity how an exemption applies,” Murray, the supervisor, wrote.
The Times has appealed the town’s response and is awaiting a ruling by the supervisor’s office.
Attempts to reach Officer Santon by department email have been unsuccessful.
The unredacted report that was released shows Officer Santon never personally reached out to Sgt. Haberkost, a violation of department protocol, according to Mr. Parker’s report. The sergeant has a department-issued cell phone, which is the best way to reach him at night because the police station goes “dark” during the evening hours, meaning it’s not staffed with support personnel.
Officer Santon said during his interview with Mr. Parker that he relied on Officer Rogers to fill in Sgt. Haberkost about what happened, according to the report. Officer Santon told Officer Rogers to have the sergeant meet him at the hospital, the report states.
Not contacting his supervisor directly was a violation of department rules, Mr. Parker’s report concluded.
“Officer Santon had an absolute duty to notify Sgt. Haberkost of what had happened with his prisoner and that he would be following her to the hospital,” the report states. “Officer Santon’s statement that he intended to tell the sergeant when he called the police station is an untruthful statement.”