By Natalie Pompilio
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A jury on Thursday found six Philadelphia police officers not guilty of federal charges that they stole money from drug suspects, used excessive force and lied on search warrants and in court testimony.
The officers, all members of an elite narcotics unit, were acquitted in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on a range of charges including conspiracy, kidnapping, extortion and assault.
Outside the courthouse, defense attorney Jack McMahon called the prosecution case sloppy and "embarrassing to law enforcement and the justice system."
"This is a serious issue if the government can bring charges and indict men and put their lives at risk with this type of investigation and incompetence, and vouch for it," McMahon said.
Prosecutors had argued that the veteran officers abused their power, and witnesses said the defendants threatened and beat drug suspects, planted evidence, skimmed cash and lied on official police reports.
The defense disparaged the credibility of those witnesses, who included more than a dozen drug dealers and a former police officer who admitted to committing what he said were thousands of crimes while on duty.
The former officer, Jeffrey Walker, was arrested in an FBI sting in 2013. He pleaded guilty and testified against his former colleagues at the trial, which began in March.
Family members of the acquitted officers wept quietly as the verdicts were being read aloud and burst into loud sobs and hugged one another as the final "not guilty" was announced.
The officers and defense lawyers hugged and back-slapped one another in celebration.
Each of the six officers, who were suspended without pay, will decide whether to return to the police force, their lawyers said.
Lieutenant Robert Otto, who once supervised the accused officers and testified in their defense, said he hopes all six decide to return to their jobs.
"They were making a difference in this city," Otto said. "If they don’t come back, it’s going to be a shame for the citizens of the city who will lose the abilities of these officers."
More than a hundred drug cases in which the defendants were involved between 2006 and 2012 were thrown out.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Will Dunham)