BALTIMORE — Shortly after the first trial in the death of Freddie Gray got underway Monday, a judge asked more than 70 potential jurors several questions: How many had not heard of the case? About the curfew that followed? The city’s settlement with Gray’s family?
As the judge scanned the room, not a single person spoke up. Few in Baltimore have been left untouched by the events that left the city ablaze after Gray’s arrest and death in April. Seven months later, the impact of the 25-year-old’s death was clear as jury selection began in the trial of William G. Porter, one of the six officers charged in the Gray case.
Chants from demonstrators — standing outside in the cold, light rain — filtered into the marbled courtroom: “We won’t stop until killer cops are in cellblocks.”
The echoes of unrest are expected to linger as Porter’s trial continues through at least mid-December and the other officers charged in the case go to court next year.
Sharon Black, 66, a retired registered nurse, stood among the demonstrators holding a yellow banner that read, “No police terror; black lives matter.” She said that her group has been at the courthouse during each major development in the case.
“We’ve been out here, primarily to keep the pressure on,” Black said. “We want not only for these officers to be indicted, but that they be convicted and that they be jailed like the average people on the street. . . . We feel the Freddie Gray case is a symbol of police terror, police abuse and systematic racism.”
Steven Ceci, 41, a bartender who lives in the city’s Waverly neighborhood, said the demonstrations were important to show Baltimore officials “that people around the world have their eyes on Baltimore and to make sure justice is served.” He said they would continue “from the beginning of the first trial until the end of the last.”
Inside the courtroom, Circuit Court Judge Barry G. Williams asked a series of questions to the jury pool before heading into a conference room to conduct individual interviews with potential jurors, along with attorneys from both sides.
After asking the potential jurors whether they had heard about the Gray case, the curfew related to the unrest that followed and the $6.4 million civil settlement Baltimore reached with Gray’s family, the judge turned to more nuanced matters.
Did prospective jurors know any of the nearly 200 possible witnesses in the case, which included more than 100 police officers and former Baltimore police commissioner Anthony Batts? (Only a few.)
Would any of them give more or less weight to the testimony of police officers? (Twelve said they would.)
And did any of them have connections to law enforcement? (Twelve again indicated they did.)
Twenty-nine said they could not serve on the jury; an additional 38 said they had been victims of crime or had been investigated or previously incarcerated. And 26 said they had strong feelings about the charges Porter faces, including manslaughter and police misconduct.
The trial of Porter, 26, will be watched closely locally and across the country and comes amid renewed concerns about police use of force against minorities and after recent protests over shootings in Chicago and Minneapolis. Williams told jurors that the trial would begin in earnest in a “day or two” and would end by Dec. 17.
Gray and three of the charged officers, including Porter, are black. The other three officers are white.
Porter, wearing a dark blue suit and yellow tie, arrived with his attorneys shortly after 9 a.m., and prosecutors arrived about 10 minutes later. Porter sat with his attorneys taking notes on a legal pad. About 40 members of the media and public filled the courtroom along with potential jurors.
The proceedings are expected to provide fresh details about how Gray suffered a severe spinal injury while being transported in a police van. The trial also could bring the first public account from one of the officers charged in the case; Porter’s attorneys have said that he probably will take the stand.
Prosecutors are expected to argue that Gray was critically injured because he was unbelted, with legs and arms restrained, during the transport. Prosecutors have said officers then ignored Gray’s pleas for medical help.
Defense attorneys, however, have said prosecutors rushed to judgment in filing charges against Porter and his colleagues. And Porter’s attorneys probably will dispute the medical examiner’s report that classified Gray’s death as a homicide, saying coroners relied too heavily on information from prosecutors to reach their conclusions.
The incident began April 12, when Gray fled after encountering a police officer. He was apprehended quickly. Officers found a small knife in his possession and he was arrested, according to charging documents.
Gray — who had asked for his inhaler and said he could not breathe while being detained — was loaded into the back of a police van for transport to central booking, prosecutors allege. He was not belted properly into a seat as required by police department policy, according to charging documents.
Precisely what officers knew about that rule, though, is expected to be a key point at the trial. The policy had taken effect April 3, and a message was sent to officers about it April 9 — three days before Gray’s arrest. Defense attorneys have argued that prosecutors cannot prove that Porter knew about the policy change.
The van made stops. During one, officers placed flexible handcuffs and leg shackles on Gray before putting him on the floor of the van on his belly, prosecutors have said. After the transport resumed, prosecutors have said, Gray suffered the injury.
Prosecutors have not detailed exactly how Gray was injured, but medical examiners wrote in an autopsy report obtained by the Baltimore Sun that Gray may have gotten onto his feet and then fallen as the van was turning, accelerating or slowing.
Prosecutors have said that, at some point, the officer driving the van called dispatch for help in checking on Gray, which is when Porter arrived on the scene, according to charging documents.
Both officers went to the back to see Gray, who requested help, saying he could not breathe and twice asking for a medic, according to prosecutors. Prosecutors have said neither officer sought care for Gray.
Charging documents say Porter helped Gray to a seat in the back of the van. Porter then left to assist in another arrest.
Gray was driven to the Western District police station, where he was found not breathing and in cardiac arrest, according to charging documents. He was hospitalized and died April 19.
Porter, who has been on the force since 2012, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. He has pleaded not guilty.
Hours after court ended for the day, between 30 and 50 demonstrators marched from the courthouse several blocks to the Inner Harbor and then to City Hall, where they dispersed shortly before 8 p.m.
Along the way, they stopped in front of several businesses, shouting, “Shut it down!” Police said the group moved briskly and disbanded without incident.
Peter Hermann and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.
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