A former NYPD detective whose questionable statements led prosecutors in three different boroughs to drop hundreds of criminal convictions in cases he worked stands trial for perjury today.
Prosecutors say Joseph Franco, 50, repeatedly said he had witnessed drug deals that they claim didn’t happen — or at least not within his sight.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office charged Franco with multiple counts of perjury, official misconduct and other charges in 2019 after prosecutors uncovered video evidence they say contradicts statements he made on police paperwork and in court. Multiple people were arrested for drug sales that Franco said he watched, and some spent time behind bars. But prosecutors allege that he couldn’t have seen the deals that laid the groundwork for those criminal cases.
The former detective’s alleged misconduct cost the city nearly $1.3 million in lawsuit settlements during the first half of last year. His perjury charges have led prosecutors in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx to review hundreds of cases that he investigated, and they have asked the courts to dismiss more than 450 convictions based on his police work. Records show that the police department has also disciplined him for two civilian complaints in recent years.
If convicted by a jury, Franco could spend up to seven years in prison. He has pleaded not guilty.
“His lies were a poison that tainted any fair or legitimate case,” Assistant District Attorney Samantha Dworken said during opening statements in Manhattan Supreme Court Thursday.
Dworken described Franco as a “very experienced narcotics detective” whose ability to “disappear in plain sight” while working undercover to gather intel for drug investigations earned him the trust of his fellow detectives, supervisors and prosecutors. But eventually, she said, a Manhattan prosecutor working one of the detective’s cases “caught Franco in a lie.”
“When an officer in Franco’s position fills in gaps,” she said, “that is not truth telling. It is lying. And the foundation of our system is irreparably damaged.”
Howard Evan Tanner, Franco’s defense attorney, said the drug sales did happen — that Franco “saw every last one of them” and that the footage isn’t proof that he didn’t .
“This video is not complete,” Tanner said. “Not every angle is covered. Not every entrance is covered.”
Tanner sought to discredit the people his client claimed had sold drugs, noting that several had pleaded guilty in those cases or had other charges on their records. One of them, he noted, was recently arrested for possessing a loaded firearm.
Tanner said that Franco might have gotten some details wrong and that others might have been “lost in translation,” but he disputed that the former detective intentionally lied and urged jurors to give him “the benefit of the doubt.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, Joe’s on trial for doing his job,” Tanner said, calling the Manhattan DA “overzealous.”
“It’s not right,” Tanner said.
Four drug deals in question
In Judge Robert Mandelbaum’s wood-paneled 15th floor courtroom, Franco sat beside his defense attorney. His head was shaven, a bushy beard covered his chin and he was dressed in a mauve button-down shirt. His eyes tracked each speaker as the two sides made opening statements and the prosecution then began questioning witnesses.
The trial centers on four cases that Franco investigated between 2017 and 2018 while working as a detective in Narcotics Borough Manhattan South.
In one incident, for example, Franco said that he saw a man give cocaine to a woman who then sold the drugs to an undercover cop. The man who Franco said gave the woman the cocaine was arrested. But prosecutors say footage of the encounter only shows the woman holding the door open for the man as he walked out of a building — not getting drugs from him.
Franco joined the NYPD in 2000 and spent nearly 20 years with the department, including about 15 in narcotics. Prosecutors said he made more than 100 arrests over the course of his career and helped with thousands more. His defense attorney said he participated in more than 4,000 undercover operations.
When the police department conducted an internal investigation into Franco’s alleged lies, several colleagues praised his dedication to his work and his ability to gather information by blending in, according to NYPD records. Lt. Washington Zurita, who supervised Franco for a year, called him “one of the best detectives” and said he had a “sixth sense” for spotting drug deals. Detective Jawuan Hubbard called him “the best cop” he had ever worked with.
But an administrative judge who reviewed the police disciplinary case against Franco found that he had “egregiously and irrevocably violated the oath he swore to uphold.” The department found Franco guilty of making false statements and dismissed him in the spring of 2020.