In a stunning public announcement Friday morning, Baltimore’s top prosecutor confidently and methodically laid out criminal charges against six city police officers related to the death of Freddie Gray. Obtaining convictions, though, would undoubtedly be more complicated and could easily stretch more than a year, and a trial might not even take place in the same city.
“This case clearly is a tragedy. But assigning responsibility for what happened — with six people — becomes a very difficult process,” said Philip Armstrong, a veteran Maryland defense attorney.
All six are charged with misconduct in office. Two are charged with assault and improper detention of Gray, who police said was severely injured in a police van. Then it gets more serious: Three officers, charged with manslaughter, are accused of contributing to Gray’s death. The sixth officer is charged with second-degree murder, accused of actions so reckless that he had to know Gray probably could be killed.
For the officers charged with manslaughter or murder, a central set of questions could carry all the way to trial and become the basis of weeks of testimony by doctors, experts in police procedure and the defendants.
“What was Mr. Gray’s condition every step of the way? What did the officers know and what could they have known? These are very fact-specific circumstances that have to be sorted out,” Thomas DeGonia said.
He, Armstrong and four other defense attorneys, all former prosecutors in Maryland, were interviewed about what to expect in the case. They emphasized that it’s very early in the process, so many more facts will come to light. Their observations are based on allegations in arrest warrants filed against the officers, and on their courtroom experience.
The officers were charged with 28 crimes. The allegations stem from an April 12 arrest in West Baltimore. Three officers chased Gray, 25, found him carrying a knife and arrested him. (Prosecutors said they concluded that the knife was legal and that Gray should not have been arrested.)
A police van was called to take Gray to a precinct station. He was not secured with a seat belt. At one point, the driver stopped, Gray was handcuffed and leg-shackled, and he was placed, headfirst, on the floor of the van, prosecutors said. At some point during the transport, Gray suffered a neck injury.
Officers ignored Gray’s pleas for medical help, authorities said.
Even though it is early in the case, each side has staked out strong positions.
Chief prosecutor Marilyn J. Mosby framed the case, in part, in the context of the thousands of young protesters in Baltimore. “To the youth of this city: I will seek justice on your behalf,” she said Friday. “This is a moment. This is your moment.”
Michael Davey, an attorney with Baltimore’s police union who also represents one of the accused officers, said the six did nothing wrong and were saddened by Gray’s death. “His injuries did not occur as a result of any action, or inaction, on the part of these officers,” Davey said.
Now, as he and other attorneys for the individual officers delve into the case, they most certainly will consider trying to move it to another jurisdiction. Their argument: Not only has there been too much local media attention, the city also is now home to a widespread belief that convicting the officers is part of a greater mission to curb years of police misconduct.
“The defendants need to try to get trials outside of Baltimore,” attorney Andrew Jezic said. “It would be extremely difficult for a lot of jurors to try to explain to friends and neighbors why they voted for not guilty.”
Many Baltimore residents would oppose such an effort. An attorney for Gray’s family put it this way: “We can find 12 fair-minded individuals to serve as jurors here who can be fair and just,” said William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr. “Freddie deserves to have his case heard by the people of Baltimore.”
Robert Bonsib, a defense attorney in Greenbelt, said the change-of-venue request may fall into the lap of one Baltimore judge.
“That’s going to be a tough, front-end decision,” Bonsib said.
There’s no question the case has unique elements: Protests, riots, six officers charged. But at least one characteristic may track what defense attorney Steven Kupferberg said is a common tactic among prosecutors: Charge everyone involved in hopes of getting some to turn against the others.
“They may want to try to negotiate pleas with the minors to testify against the majors,” he said.
Kupferberg said those considered major defendants would probably be all or a couple of the officers charged with manslaughter, as well as the officer charged with second-degree murder, which is punishable by up to 30 years in prison. That latter defendant, Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr., 45, a member of the department for 16 years, drove the van. He is charged with a form of homicide called “depraved heart” murder, a charge used when someone is accused of extreme, reckless disregard for another person’s life — akin to putting a gun to someone’s head and playing Russian roulette, said Glenn F. Ivey, a Washington lawyer and the former top prosecutor of Prince George’s County.
“It has to be really outrageous and dangerous conduct,” Ivey said.
Prosecutors also charged Goodson with two counts of manslaughter related to how he operated the van: driving in a “grossly negligent manner,” punishable by up to 10 years, and driving in a “criminally negligent manner,” punishable by up to three years.
The charging documents against Goodson do not allege any overt commissions — jerking the vehicle to a sudden stop, for example, while knowing Gray’s arms and legs were restricted and he wasn’t secured with a seat belt. So it’s not clear what evidence prosecutors will present at trial.
Ivey, who prosecuted police officers in Prince George’s, said jurors can be sympathetic to officers who fire their weapons, because they often have to make a quick decision. But this case might be different. The van ride appears to have taken awhile, according to court papers.
“You had a long course of conduct,” Ivey said.
But one thing seems clear: If the case against Goodson or any of the officers charged with manslaughter goes before a jury, their attorneys will not just consider calling their own forensic experts, they also will probably do all that they can to humanize the officers.
In addition to Goodson, the accused Baltimore officers are Lt. Brian W. Rice, 41, a 17-year member of the force; Sgt. Alicia D. White, 30, who joined the department in 2010; and Officers Garrett E. Miller, 26, Edward M. Nero, 29, and William G. Porter, 25, all of whom joined the force in 2012.
The six have posted bail. Prosecutors will seek to move the cases to Circuit Court.
Keith Alexander contributed to this report.