Taken as a whole, prosecutors’ initial public account of how Freddie Gray died painted an alarming picture. Six Baltimore police officers were involved in his arrest, his ride inside a police transport van or both on the morning of April 12. Gray, 25, suffered a catastrophic neck injury inside the wagon and died seven days later.
But that whole picture — when it comes to trials for the six officers in the nationally followed case — will be broken into six pieces. The development, set forth last week by Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams, was cast by many legal observers as a key victory for the officers.
“This was huge. It puts the prosecutors in a very difficult position,” said Warren S. Alperstein, a defense attorney and former prosecutor who is not involved in the case.
In earlier court papers and statements, Alperstein said, prosecutors indicated that they wanted to group the officers into two trials. On Wednesday, they argued specifically that the same evidence applied to three of the officers and that trying them at the same time would give a jury the best understanding of what happened.
But the judge saw it differently, saying that the officers could be unfairly tainted if jurors were shown evidence related primarily to their colleagues’ actions.
Prosecutors declined to predict what effect the ruling would have on the case. It’s unknown precisely what evidence they will present at each trial.
The ruling precedes another big one scheduled for this coming week: Williams is expected to take up the officers’ request that the trials be moved out of Baltimore, where the officers say they cannot get a fair trial because of publicity and anti-police sentiment.
Gray died April 19 from a neck injury that prosecutors said was the “result of being handcuffed, shackled by his feet and unrestrained” inside the police van. His death set off widespread demonstrations and riots in Baltimore. All six officers have pleaded not guilty.
During Gray’s arrest and transport, the officers showed up at different times — and sometimes multiple times — both before and after Gray suffered the critical injury. It’s unclear how much of the whole, evolving situation each understood, a notion their attorneys likely will play up in court, legal experts said.
Six separate trials will yield more-fragmented pieces of what happened that morning, not a detailed, full narrative.
And from the officers’ point of view, that’s a good development, said David Felsen, a longtime criminal defense lawyer in Rockville.
“As a general rule, you want to have a separate trial,” he said. “If there is one trial and six defendants, the optics of it make it look like they’re all in this together.”
Prosecutors filed charges in May against Officers Caesar R. Goodson Jr., William G. Porter, Edward M. Nero and Garrett E. Miller; Sgt. Alicia D. White; and Lt. Brian W. Rice.
Had prosecutors been able to group all six officers into one or two trials, they could have better established a chronological arch of the arrest and transport of Gray — introducing the officers as they came into contact with him. Three of the six officers encountered him early, during the arrest. Two of those officers are charged with the least serious group of offenses: misconduct in office, reckless endangerment and misdemeanor assault. A third arresting officer faces those charges in addition to a manslaughter count.
Then came the driver of the van, Goodson, who is charged with second-degree murder, under the theory he acted with such disregard for Gray’s life that he should have known Gray likely could have been killed.
The final two officers came into contact with Gray along the way. According to prosecutors, they ignored his need for medical help. They each face manslaughter charges and other counts. There is a chance, Alperstein said, that prosecutors could come back to court and attempt to group officers charged with the same conduct at trial — perhaps the two arresting officers with the least-serious counts, for example.
There has been no indication that any of the officers want to testify against the others. Separate trials may allow them to vaguely cast blame toward their colleagues without really damaging their legal standing.
“If your defense is someone else did it, you can now point at the empty chair,” said Glenn F. Ivey, a former Prince George’s County state’s attorney. “If they’re all in there, they’re now pointing fingers at each other. Lots of jurors will think, ‘They all did it — a den of thieves, guilt by association.’ ”
Robert Bonsib, a Greenbelt defense lawyer and former prosecutor, cautioned that there are no hard-and-fast rules about how group trials will play out. He recalled trying a 13-week fraud case involving multiple defendants; he represented an accountant who was a minor player. As the trial evolved, Bonsib realized it was best to not ask many questions. His client was acquitted.
“It turned out better for my guy because he kind of hid on the sidelines. If he had been sitting there alone, there would have been no place to hide,” Bonsib said.
But he said there is a key reason prosecutors often like trying defendants together: “It’s easier to present the whole picture.”
In the Gray case, the initial trials may affect whether the others stay in Baltimore. If the first trial takes place there and prompts demonstrations, riots and wall-to-wall media coverage, the next officer up could more effectively argue to move the case to another jurisdiction.
“The publicity for the first trial will change the dynamic of the second trial,” Bonsib said.
As each case goes along, witnesses will leave a record that can be challenged if they start saying things differently. “If I’m a defendant in this case,” Bonsib said, “I’d like six different trials, and I’d want to be number six.”
Lynh Bui contributed to this report.