BALTIMORE — The identities of the 12 jurors selected for the trial of a police officer charged in Freddie Gray’s death will be concealed, the latest ruling from a judge working to ensure a fair jury despite “extensive publicity” surrounding the high-profile case.
Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry G. Williams on Tuesday granted a request from defense attorneys to keep the jurors anonymous but denied a proposal to sequester those who are impaneled.
Because of “intense media scrutiny,” Williams said that disclosing juror names could “create a substantial” threat that they would be subject to “unwanted publicity or harassment.”
Attorneys for both sides returned to court this week for a hearing to finalize several legal matters ahead of the trial set to begin Monday for Officer William G. Porter.
Porter is the first of the six officers charged in the Gray case to go to trial. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment.
Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal injury after he was arrested April 12 and put in the back of a police van, shackled but not restrained in a seat, prosecutors said. He died of his injuries a week later. The case stoked national debate over fatal police interactions with young black men, sparking riots and demonstrations in the city.
Defense attorneys at Tuesday’s hearing again expressed concern over whether jurors selected from the city can be impartial given the high-profile nature of the case and the potential for further riots depending on the outcome of the trial.
Porter’s attorneys renewed their argument that Williams move the trial out of Baltimore, after the judge had previously denied two other change-of-venue requests in recent months. As part of their request, one of Porter’s attorneys, Gary Proctor, submitted a study from the University of Baltimore saying that city residents were twice as likely to have negative interactions or perceptions of police than others in Maryland.
But Williams was again unswayed, ordering Proctor to sit down after again reiterating that city residents should be given the chance to serve on the jury.
In the absence of a change of venue, Porter’s attorneys requested that jurors be put in a hotel at the court’s expense for the duration of the trial, with limited access to television and phones.
“While this Court may order all jurors to avoid news stories in all cases, in the case at bar, that will be nigh on impossible,” Porter’s attorneys wrote in a motion requesting that the jury be sequestered.
But prosecutors argued that confining the jury would scare people, “making jury service so unnecessarily burdensome and frightening that few would not seek to avoid it.”
The extreme measures, prosecutors said, would undermine the ability of the jury to arrive at a fair verdict if they are miserable and under “prison-like conditions.”
Valerie Hans, a professor at Cornell Law School who studies jury selection, said it is becoming more and more common for judges not to sequester juries in high-profile cases. Hans said courts are moving away from sequestration because it presents such a hardship to jurors and often leaves a panel that is not representative of the larger population. “The O.J. Simpson trial soured many people on sequestration,” Hans said.
Defense attorneys have also asked the judge to inform jurors at the start of the trial and during jury instructions that their identities would not be revealed to the public or the news media. As of Tuesday afternoon, however, it was unclear how Williams will decide to handle this matter.
Measures must be taken to ensure that Porter receives a trial “without any ‘sacrificial lamb’ thinking on the part of jury members,” his attorneys wrote. “In the current climate, saying ‘not guilty,’ regardless of the evidence or the lack thereof presented by the state, and then returning to your daily life will take great courage on the part of the citizenry.”
In addition to the defense attorneys’ request to sequester the jury, the judge ruled Tuesday on several motions that were filed over the past several weeks. He granted prosecutors’ request to admit some cellphone video showing Gray’s arrest and to allow jurors to view the van that transported him.
Williams, however, denied several motions, including prosecutors’ request to limit the number of character witnesses Porter’s attorneys can call and defense attorneys’ request to bar information related to police department policies on seat-belting detainees.
Porter was not one of the officers who arrested Gray, but he became involved after the van driver transporting Gray to central booking called for backup, prosecutors said. Porter, who is black and has been with the department since 2012, checked on Gray and asked him whether he needed medical assistance, according to charging documents. When Gray said he could not breathe, Porter helped him off the van floor and onto a bench but failed to call for medical help, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors have strategically requested that Porter be tried first in hopes of using his testimony against other officers in the case.
The five other officers charged in the case are Officers Caesar R. Goodson Jr., Edward M. Nero and Garrett E. Miller, Lt. Brian W. Rice and Sgt. Alicia D. White.
Goodson, who drove the van carrying Gray, faces the most serious charge of second-degree depraved-heart murder. Goodson, Rice and White also face charges of involuntary manslaughter. All five have also been charged with second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. All have pleaded not guilty, and their trials are scheduled for early next year.
Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.