Trial Of Freddie Gray Police Van Driver Ends In Acquittal
The trial of the man who was believed to be the most culpable in the death of Freddie Gray has been acquitted, calling the entire prosecution strategy into question.
The trial of a third Baltimore Police Officer in the death last year of Freddie Gray has ended in another acquittal, leading many to question if prosecutors will now be able to obtain guilty verdicts in any of the six cases it has brought arising out of Gray’s death:
BALTIMORE — The Baltimore police officer who drove the van in which Freddie Gray sustained a fatal spinal injury was acquitted on Thursday of second-degree murder and six lesser charges, leaving prosecutors still without a conviction after three high-profile trials in a case that has shaken this city.
In his ruling, Judge Barry G. Williams rejected the prosecution’s claim that the officer, Caesar R. Goodson Jr., had given Mr. Gray a “rough ride” in the van, intentionally putting him at risk for an injury by taking a wide turn while Mr. Gray was not secured with a seatbelt.
“The court finds there is insufficient evidence that the defendant gave or intended to give Mr. Gray a rough ride,” Judge Williams, said, adding that there had not been “evidence presented at this trial that the defendant intended for any crime to happen.”
Mr. Gray, a 25-year-old black man, was arrested in April of last year after fleeing, apparently unprompted, from officers in the downtrodden Sandtown neighborhood of West Baltimore, and loaded onto the floor of the van. His legs were shackled and his hands cuffed behind his back, and he was not wearing a seatbelt. The police wagon made six stops before it arrived at the Western District police station, where Mr. Gray was found unresponsive and not breathing with a spinal cord injury. He died about a week later.
On Thursday, the courtroom was packed, and hushed, as the judge read the verdicts; sheriff’s deputies had issued a warning: “No moans, no groans.” Afterward, Officer Goodson hugged member of his family and two other officers charged in the death — Officers Garrett E. Miller and Edward M. Nero — who had been seated in the front row.
The state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, heaved a sigh and walked out, her head down, escorted by her security guard. The two prosecutors who tried the case, Jan Bledsoe and Michael Schatzow, followed, purse-lipped and looking glum.
For Ms. Mosby, the not guilty verdicts raise an obvious and painful question: Can she go forward with the rest of the prosecutions? Four more trials — including a retrial of Officer William G. Porter, whose first trial ended with a hung jury in December — remain. (Officer Nero was acquitted of four charges last month.) Several lawyers who attended the trial said Ms. Mosby must now rethink her strategy.
“If she abandons the prosecution of the four remaining trials, the only interpretation of that is that she has been defeated — certainly that does not bode well politically for her,” said Warren Alperstein, a lawyer who represents police officers, though not those charged in the Gray cases. “On the other hand, how do far do you take this when you are 0 for three?”
Warren Brown, a defense lawyer in Baltimore, said that “this was the state’s Waterloo.”
Mr. Gray’s death spurred days of violent protests that prompted the governor to call in the National Guard and put the city at the center of a wrenching national debate over race and policing. Ms. Mosby, stood on the steps of the city’s War Memorial and told residents that she would “deliver justice” on their behalf. Ms. Mosby then took the unusual step of charging six officers in Mr. Gray’s fatal arrest and death, reserving the steepest charge — second-degree “depraved heart” murder — for Officer Goodson, who is also black.
As with Officer Edward Nero, who was acquitted of the charges against hum last month, Officer Goodson chose to have his case heard by a Judge rather than a Jury and it arguably worked out to his benefit just as it did for Officer Nero due to the fact that the Judge was far less likely to be swayed by the passions that had spread through the community in the wake of Gray’s death. The difference between Nero and Goodson, though, lies in the fact that the charges against Goodson were far more serious and, as the driver of the van that Gray was injured in prior to his death, Goodson was viewed as potentially far more culpable than Nero or any of the other officers in Gray’s death since it was, at least in theory, was considered the most responsible for ensuring that Gray was secured in the vehicle safely. Finally, given that the specific charge underlying all of the prosecutions has been that Gray died due to a ‘rough ride’ through the streets of Baltimore at a high rate of speed that was specifically designed to toss him around inside the van, the fact that Goodson was the driver made him responsible for his driving behavior and any apparent effort to make the ride rougher than reasonably necessary for anyone sitting in the back of the van. As it turned out, the Judge found that the state had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Goodson was aware of the nature of Gray’s injuries, or that he had given Gray a ‘rough ride’:
In his ruling, the judge methodically turned aside the state’s main contentions. The state, he said, had failed to prove that Officer Goodson knew or should have known that Mr. Gray needed medical attention during most of the van ride.
Prosecutors, he said, had also “failed to prove behind a reasonable doubt that the defendant drove in a criminally negligent manner.”
Prosecutors had also claimed that Officer Goodson had a duty to place a seatbelt on Mr. Gray, and failed to do so. Judge Williams said there was a point, during the van’s fourth stop, when Officer Goodson should have reassessed whether it was possible to put a seatbelt on Mr. Gray.
“Here, the failure to seatbelt may have been a mistake, or may have been bad judgment,” Judge Williams said, but the state had not shown it was a crime.
More from The Baltimore Sun:
The Baltimore Police van driver accused of giving a “rough ride” that killed Freddie Gray was acquitted of all charges Thursday by Circuit Judge Barry Williams.
Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., 46, had faced the most serious charges of any of the six officers indicted in Gray’s arrest and death last April, including second-degree depraved heart murder. Goodson was also acquitted of three counts of manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.
His acquittal, which comes after Williams considered the charges for three days, throws the rest of the cases into jeopardy. The other officers charged face similar, but lesser accusations.
Williams said the timeline of Gray’s injuries remains unclear, and the state “failed to meet its burden” to present enough evidence to back its assertions.
“As the trier of fact, the court can’t simply let things speak for themselves,” Williams said.
After the verdict, Goodson was patted on the back by his attorneys, and a group of about 10 family members including his father hugged and wiped away tears. One man grabbed and kissed the top of Goodson’s head and then raised his palms to the ceiling.
Prosecutors alleged Goodson had five chances to render aid to Gray after his neck was broken in the back of the van, which they said demonstrated a “depraved heart.”
They also said Goodson was the direct cause of the injuries, driving the van in a reckless manner that threw him in the back of the van’s steel cage, shackled but unrestrained by a seat belt. As a certified field training officer, prosecutors said Goodson knew Police Department rules and broke them.
Williams, a former city prosecutor who investigated police misconduct for the Justice Department, said there were a number of “equally plausible scenarios” for when Gray was injured in the van. He talked through five such scenarios and why evidence showed they were plausible — and complicated the assertion that Goodson failed to act.
Williams repeatedly cited the testimony of the prosecution’s medical witnesses – that Gray’s injuries would have been progressive, and that he could have talked, moved his head and held himself up at various points along the transport – to suggest that it would have been hard for Goodson to tell if Gray was injured.
“This injury manifested itself internally,” he said, of Gray’s spinal injury. “That is one of the key issues here. If the doctors are not clear as to what would be happening at this point in time, how would the average person or officer without medical training know?”
Williams cited Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow’s use of a “rough ride” theory as the “centerpiece” of the prosecution’s case in his opening statement. The judge said “rough ride” is an “inflammatory term” that is “not to be taken lightly,” and said the state had failed to prove such a ride was given to Gray.
Williams said the only time the prosecution had proved that Goodson had neglected his duty to secure Gray with a seat belt was at the van’s fourth stop.
“The failure to seatbelt may have been a mistake or it may have been bad judgment, but without showing more than has been presented to the court concerning the failure to seatbelt and the surrounding circumstances, the state has failed to meet its burden to show that the actions of the defendant rose above mere civil negligence,” Williams said.
He repeatedly mentioned the higher burden to prove criminal negligence, compared to civil negligence. The city has already paid out a $6.4 million civil settlement to Gray’s family.
Goodson’s defense attorneys said officers who checked on Gray didn’t know he was seriously injured, and that Goodson deferred to decisions of other officers not to put a seat belt on Gray.
His attorneys also disputed the time frame of Gray’s injuries, placing them later in the van’s journey and therefore offering less chances to intervene, and blamed Gray himself, saying he had been placed on his stomach in the van and stood up.
Since I didn’t follow the case in detail, I have to assume that Judge Williams’ evaluation of the evidence is an accurate one. If it is, though, it calls into question the entire manner in which the prosecution approached this case, and the way that it is handling the trials of all the cases of the officers involved in the circumstances leading to Gray’s death. By all accounts, Goodson was the most culpable of all the officers involved in this incident and the evidence against him was supposedly the strongest of all the officers as well. The fact that the State’s Attorney was unable to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and that the previous two trials have ended in a hung jury and an acquittal suggests that there is something flawed in the prosecutor’s trial strategy or that there was a rush to judgment last year when these six officers were arrested and charged within days after the protests that devolved into rioting last May, or perhaps both. It also suggests that proceeding with the remaining trials in this case may well end up being a waste of time that will result in acquittals similar to what we’ve already seen. It’s possible, of course, that this is exactly what justice demands, but the fact that prosecutors couldn’t prove even simple criminal negligence on Goodson’s part given what we know about how Gray died is puzzling to say the very least.
So far at least, it appears that the reaction to the outcome of this case on the streets of Baltimore appears to be muted. No doubt, city and state authorities are preparing for the worst, but the fact that the hung jury and acquittal in the previous two cases did not result in any significant trouble is a good sign that things will not devolve into the kind of anarchy we saw in May of last year. Beyond that, though, this development is likely to stand as a further embarrassment to the State’s Attorney in this case, who stuck her neck out from the beginning of this process in promising to bring “justice” for the protesters. Arguably, she did not properly prepare them for the possibility that justice came when the six officers were charged and that the outcome that we’ve seen in these first two cases is exactly what justice demands due to the fact that it cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Freddie Gray’s death was the result of criminal acts on the part of these officers. It’s an important distinction, but not one that’s easy to explain to layman. Now, she finds herself with four officers to try and the distinct possibility that it may not be possible to convict any of them beyond a reasonable doubt. If that’s the case, then she arguably has an ethical duty to consider not proceeding to trial at all.
Here is the transcript of Judge Williams’ verdict: