WASHINGTON - A t-shirt worn by a D.C. police officer that activists say includes racist symbolism may lead to challenges to hundreds of criminal cases, according to a D.C. defense attorney.
The shirt controversy has already led to the dismissal of one such case this month.
According to a court transcript of an August 1 hearing, a public defender brought the shirt controversy up before a trial was set to begin for 24-year-old Carlos Johnson last week. Johnson was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm. The public defender, Leo Alley, asked the judge to compel the government to produce more information on the officers involved in Johnson's case and their possible involvement in the making or wearing of the t-shirt.
Activists photographed a D.C. police officer wearing a black t-shirt with the word "Powershift" on it. The symbol replacing the "O" in the word has been connected to the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, the groups allege.
The government asked Judge Maribeth Raffinan for a three-month continuance while D.C. police finish their internal investigation into the t-shirt and how many officers may have been involved. The officers who arrested Johnson are also members of the Powershift, which patrols high-crime areas.
Raffinan offered the government a three-week continuance, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Kate Rakoczy said the government would not be prepared by then. Raffinan then dismissed the case against Johnson without prejudice, meaning it is possible Johnson could be charged again.
"I don't think that that lengthy of a continuance so that the investigation can be concluded, in exercising my judgment is fair, equitable in these circumstances," Raffinan said.
Defense attorney David Benowitz tells FOX 5 any smart defense attorney will use the dismissed case as an example to try and argue their clients arrested by Powershift officers may have been subject to racial bias during their arrests.
"Juries are dependent on that officer's credibility," Benowitz said. "Judges are dependent on that credibility. The whole system is dependent in a certain sense on that credibility and this type of alleged activity depending on how deep it goes threatens that foundation."
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham expressed disappointment Tuesday in the judge's decision to dismiss the Johnson case. He assured that the t-shirt internal investigation is still ongoing.