BALTIMORE — On Monday morning, prosecutor Janice Bledsoe borrowed a quote from a famous French writer and a Hollywood blockbuster to conclude her closing argument in the state’s case against William G. Porter, the first Baltimore police officer being tried in Freddie Gray’s death.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” Bledsoe told the court. “Voltaire said that — and Spider-Man.”
She told the jury — which would soon deliberate for nearly three hours before electing to continue Tuesday morning — that Porter had the power to save Gray at least four times but didn’t.
“He abused his power,” she said. “He failed in his responsibility. Hold him responsible.”
In defense attorney Joseph Murtha’s retort, he called Gray’s death a “horrific tragedy,” but not one for which his client is responsible. He alleged that prosecutors had “preyed upon the fears” jurors might have regarding the case.
“You’re making a legal decision — not a moral, not a philosophical — a legal decision,” he said. “You set aside the sympathies, you set aside the passions, you look at the cold, hard facts that aren’t there in this case.”
Gray, 25, was arrested April 12 after he ran from police in his West Baltimore neighborhood. Prosecutors say he suffered a severe spinal injury while being transported in the back of a police van, without a seat belt but with his hands and feet shackled. His death a week later sparked protests and riots.
Though it remains unclear precisely how Gray was hurt, medical experts on both sides of the case compared his injury with those sustained when someone dives into too-shallow water.
Over the past two weeks, attorneys called more than 20 witnesses, presented about 100 pieces of evidence and made hours of passionate legal arguments in their competing efforts to explain Porter’s actions on the day of Gray’s arrest.
Prosecutors argued that Porter — who is charged with involuntary manslaughter, among other crimes — disregarded his duty by not strapping Gray into the van and failing to get him medical help when he asked for it and, at one point, claimed he couldn’t breathe. Investigators contended that a shackled Gray, unable to brace himself, fell and struck his head when the van made a sudden movement.
Bledsoe had begun her closing argument with just a sound — a quick, quiet click.
“How long does it take?” she asked. “How long does it take to click a seat belt? And click a radio and ask for a medic? Two seconds? Three seconds? Maybe four.”
She continued: “Is two, three, four seconds worth a life? It’s all it would have taken.”
She argued that Porter’s failure to secure Gray with a seat belt or call for medical assistance led to his death.
“Freddie Gray went into the van healthy, and Freddie Gray came out dead,” she said, later calling the wagon “his casket on wheels.”
Defense attorneys have argued that Porter was a conscientious officer who acted reasonably given what he knew at the time. They asserted that Gray showed no obvious signs of injury and did not articulate any specific problems. Despite that, his attorneys said, Porter twice asked if he needed a medic and told other officers Gray should go to the hospital. Several officers testified that arrestees were rarely — if ever — buckled into police vans.
“I understand that there’s this need to find somebody responsible, to hold somebody accountable for the death of Freddie Gray. That is a natural human reaction. But we sit and stand within the walls of a courtroom,” Murtha said, adding later that there was “an absence — an absolute absence — from any testimony from a state’s witness that Officer Porter acted in an unreasonable manner.”
Murtha reminded jurors that his client must be presumed innocent.
“The absence of real evidence raises much more than a reasonable doubt,” he said, focusing much of his time on attacking the state’s “star witness” — Carol Allan, the medical examiner — who Murtha alleged had “made a rush to judgment” when she determined the timing of Gray’s injury.
During the second stop, officers put Gray into the van with his hands and legs restrained, flat on his stomach. At the fourth, they found him in that same position.
Allan theorized that between those points, Gray stood up and was thrown when the van accelerated or slowed. She ruled the death a homicide.
“Let me tell you how Officer Porter disregarded Freddie Gray’s life,” Bledsoe said before describing how he saw Gray loaded into the van, heard his request for help at the fourth stop and lifted him onto the bench without buckling him in at the fifth.
At the sixth, she said, he saw that Gray was not breathing but did not start administering breaths to resuscitate him, as first aid protocol instructs.
“You didn’t even bother giving him the first aid that you got your certificate for,” she said. “That is disregard for a human life. That is manslaughter.”
But Murtha noted that expert witnesses have said Gray’s neck injury was so severe he would have instantly lost the use of his limbs and been unable to speak. But at stop four, he spoke.
The attorney reminded jurors that Porter sat Gray down on a bench at stop four. “How does he sit up on the bench,” Murtha asked, “if he has just suffered a catastrophic injury?”
Jurors will resume sifting through the evidence and arguments at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.
The city, meanwhile, has long braced for a decision from this jury, made up of what appear to be seven black and five white members. Many in Gray’s neighborhood fear that if all, several or even one officer is acquitted, the verdict could again ignite riots.
Outside the courthouse Monday evening, the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon stood with about 15 protesters as a cold rain poured.
“We will respect the jury’s verdict,” Witherspoon said, “but it will not take away the pain of the death of Freddie Gray.”
Lee Patterson, 60, a retired laborer who lives in Baltimore County, said the city needs to focus on jobs for youth, adequate housing, decent schools and recreation centers.
“I’m tired of police murder and the violence of poverty,” Patterson said. “Too many poor people in the city cannot get their needs met. During the April uprising — after Freddie Gray’s funeral-- people were tired of starving, tired of seeing trees growing through abandoned housing. All of that exploded into anger. They couldn’t hold it back.”
DeNeen L. Brown, Rachel Weiner and Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.
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