Video by Lena Salzbank, CNS-TV
BALTIMORE — The trials of six police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man fatally injured while in police custody in April, will continue in Baltimore, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Glenn Williams ruled on Thursday.
Defense attorneys had argued that a multi-million dollar settlement to be paid to Gray’s survivors, leaks to the media, prejudice against the police and juror intimidation would taint a Baltimore City jury, and had lobbied to move the trial.
The judge agreed that while the riots and violence may have taken place close to potential jurors’ homes, Baltimore citizens are diverse in mindset and capable of integrity.
“Citizens of Baltimore are not monolithic,” Williams said. “They think for themselves.”
The judge also dismissed the idea of news coverage seen as favorable to the defense or the prosecution as a reason to move the trials from Baltimore.
“Where does one find a jurisdiction that is not permeated with media?” Williams asked. “What does one do with a high-profile case?”
Defense attorney Ivan Bates, who represents Baltimore Police Sgt. Alicia White, one of the six charged, had emphasized that the “citizens of Baltimore City were participants” affected by the civil unrest and violence following Gray’s death.
“They will know they must find our client guilty so they can go home to their community,” Bates said.
But prosecutors argued that voir dire — the process in which jurors are questioned about any personal connections to the trial and take an oath to tell the truth — would ferret out biased jurors.
“No one knows the sentiment of jurors unless you ask them questions,” prosecutor Michael Schatzow said. “Why should we remove all six trials before trying to get a jury?” Schatzow asked. “There’s no immediate … danger to the trial.”
Video by Hayley Fixler, CNS-TV
The Rev. Cortley “C.D.” Witherspoon, who protested outside of Thursday’s hearing, said that he was determined to see justice and described the verdict as “almost promising, I think.”
“I do think it’s a step in the right direction to healing potentially and restoring and repairing a very broken and separate relationship within the community and the police department,” Witherspoon said.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that she was confident that the judge made the right decision during a news conference Thursday at City Hall after the ruling.
“I’m focused on healing the city, as well as being prepared for the trial as it comes up,” Mayor Rawlings-Blake said. “When I talk about healing, I’m talking about continuing the work that we’re doing to reform the police department.”
Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, also present at the press conference, said that he was impressed with the peaceful protests, and was working on developing a relationship with protesters.
“What they want is no different from what we want,” Davis said.
Thursday’s ruling on the location of the case followed Rawlings-Blake’s decision to pay a $6.4 million settlement to Gray’s family. The Board of Estimates, which handles the city’s financial affairs, approved the settlement on Wednesday.
The settlement was not only a proper financial decision for the city, but a way to avoid the “continuing anxiety and distraction of more legal proceedings going on for years after the six criminal trials are over,” Rawlings-Blake said on Wednesday.
But Bates said the large payment coming before the trials could affect jurors.
“We can’t have a single juror that is not a taxpayer,” Bates said. “If the (police officers) are not guilty, why are they paying?”
“I acknowledge that this settlement is relatively unusual in that the City chose to settle a civil claim involving alleged police misconduct prior to the resolution of criminal charges,” Rawlings-Blake wrote in a statement, adding that it was for the closure of Gray’s family and the Baltimore community. “But in a limited number of cases involving unique or extraordinary circumstances, the city has made the decision to settle civil liability prior to the final adjudication of criminal charges. This is clearly one of those extraordinary circumstances.”
Baltimore police arrested Gray in the city on April 12 and he was transported by police van, where, prosecutors say, he sustained a severe spinal cord injury.
Gray’s death a week after his arrest sparked unrest and violence throughout Baltimore. Riots, civil protests and the looting and burning of local businesses followed his funeral. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) declared a state of emergency and deployed the National Guard to restore peace within the city, and Rawlings-Blake enforced a citywide curfew.
The public outcry drew national attention to Gray’s case, and another close, critical eye on police brutality against minorities, which had been building since the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9, 2014.
Each of the six police officers charged in Gray’s death will be tried separately, according to a Sept. 2 ruling from Williams, with Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby supervising the prosecution.
The driver of the police van, Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr., faces the most severe charges, including second-degree depraved-heart murder, manslaughter and two counts of vehicular manslaughter.
Officer William F. Porter, Lt. Brian W. Rice and White are charged with involuntary manslaughter. Each police officer involved, including Edward M. Nero and Garrett E. Miller, has been charged with second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. All have pleaded not guilty.
The defense and prosecutors again met with Williams, later on Thursday, at the courthouse to discuss further matters, including a defense motioned for additional investigatory files from the State’s Attorney’s office. The motions were denied, but the judge said the court is open to the defense refiling once the defense’s request is more tailored.
Protesters plan to attend future court dates, which could start as early as next month.
“We’ve got more work to do,” Witherspoon said. “We’ve got to push this city to better.”