BALTIMORE — It is a question that has been looming over this riot-scarred city since the tanks left, the protests quieted and the looted buildings stopped smoldering: Was it murder?
More than a year after Freddie Gray died from a severe neck injury sustained in police custody, it will be up to a city judge to determine the answer.
Closing arguments wrapped up Monday in the trial of Caesar Goodson Jr., the only one of six officers charged in the Gray case to face a murder count.
Judge Barry G. Williams will weigh the evidence from about 30 witnesses who appeared over two weeks before rendering a verdict Thursday morning. Goodson opted for a bench trial instead of having a jury decide his fate.
Prosecutors have so far failed to secure a conviction in the closely watched case, which fueled a national debate over the deaths of young black men in interactions with police. The case of the first officer to go to trial ended in a hung jury; a second officer was acquitted.
Goodson, 46, drove the wagon that carried Gray through West Baltimore the morning of April 12, 2015, when the 25-year-old was arrested. Prosecutors said Gray, unbuckled but handcuffed, was injured when he fell in the moving van. He died a week later.
During their final arguments, prosecutors said that Goodson, as the van driver, had the ultimate care and custody of Gray but failed to ensure his safety. Goodson didn’t put Gray in a seat belt and had four chances to take him to the hospital but did not, Deputy State’s Attorney Janice Bledsoe said.
“He had breached his duty four times, and as a result of that breach, Freddie Gray’s life was shortened,” Bledsoe said.
But Goodson’s attorneys said Gray didn’t exhibit any visible signs of immediate medical distress when officers saw him during a series of stops made by the van. They also said it would have been unsafe for officers to enter the narrow van compartment to buckle Gray because he had been combative during his initial arrest.
“When an individual has exhibited combativeness, then essentially all bets are off,” defense attorney Matthew Fraling said.
To convict Goodson of second-degree depraved-heart murder, prosecutors must have proved that the officer’s actions or lack of action created a very high risk to Gray’s life and that despite knowing the risks, Goodson acted “with extreme disregard of the life-endangering consequences.”
Goodson also is charged with manslaughter, reckless endangerment, assault and misconduct in office.
Defense attorneys likened the state’s case to a game of three-card monte, with prosecutors constantly shifting their theory as to how Gray was injured. Though prosecutors emphasized that Gray got a “rough ride” in their opening statements, saying Gray was bounced around in the van, they didn’t utter the phrase in closings until the judge asked.
“They want you to find the black ace,” Fraling said. “The black ace is constantly changing.”
Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow took umbrage to Fraling’s comparison.
“The state is not playing cards,” said Schatzow, raising his voice and gesturing at Goodson. “The state is here because of the completely unnecessary homicide of a young man. . . . He was put down onto that filthy hard floor like an animal.”
Williams sharply questioned prosecutors about what evidence they had of a “rough ride” and whether the state contends Goodson was trying to drive erratically to cause harm.
“Here is the problem,” Williams said. “The state brought it up. You said it was a rough ride. What did you mean by that in the opening? Do you acknowledge that for it to be a rough ride there has to be a level of intent?”
Schatzow responded that Goodson’s failure to secure Gray, coupled with his injury, was enough to show that the officer gave him a rough ride.
The judge persisted. “Couldn’t that be consistent with an accident?”
“When you have a prisoner who cannot protect himself, you have to protect him,” Schatzow said.
Fraling ridiculed the state’s rough-ride theory, saying surveillance video didn’t show the van making sudden stops. He said that Goodson did not intend to harm Gray and that Gray created the risk by standing up in the moving wagon.
“We’re not talking about ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ here,” Fraling said. “Officer Goodson drove the van safely, cautiously and slowly.”
Trial observers were divided about whether prosecutors offered enough evidence to convict Goodson.
Warren Alperstein, a defense lawyer and former Baltimore prosecutor, said the judge’s “unusually long” questioning of prosecutors spelled trouble for the state.
“It’s very problematic that two hours into closing arguments Judge Williams still appeared to be concerned by the state’s inability to show a rough ride occurred, as well as its apparent inability to prove Gray was in medical distress,” Alperstein said. “If Officer Goodson is acquitted, the very intense grilling by the judge will make even more sense.”
But Doug Colbert, a criminal law professor at the University of Maryland, said the state’s evidence appeared “sufficiently strong” to convict Goodson on most of the charges.
Although the defense peppered the court with theories designed to create reasonable doubt, he said, Gray’s injuries and Goodson’s failure to restrain him may be enough to show the officer acted with “depraved indifference.”
“Depraved indifference may well be leaving someone unseat-belted, cuffed and shackled inches away from a metal wall in the back of a police van,” Colbert said.
Goodson is the third officer to go to trial, following Officers William G. Porter and Edward M. Nero. Porter stood trial in the same court last year, but a jury failed to reach a verdict. He is scheduled to be retried in September. Nero was acquitted in May of assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.