The Baltimore officer who faces the most serious charge in the death of Freddie Gray in police custody waived his right to a jury trial on Monday, opting to have a judge decide his fate instead.
Police van driver Caesar Goodson Jr. and his attorneys made the change in a pretrial hearing the day before jury selection was to begin in his case.
Goodson’s trial is now scheduled to begin Thursday morning in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
Of the six officers charged in Gray’s arrest and death, Goodson is the only one to face a murder charge. The most serious count against him — second-degree depraved-heart murder — carries a penalty of up to 30 years in prison. He has also been charged with manslaughter, assault and misconduct in office.
Goodson, 46, is the third officer to go to trial in the case. His trial follows last month’s acquittal of Officer Edward Nero, who also chose a trial by judge instead of jury. The trial of Officer William G. Porter ended in a hung jury in December.
University of Maryland law professor Doug Colbert said it is a “tried and true” strategy for police officers facing trial to elect to come before a judge instead of a jury because they believe judges are more aware of the nuances of the job.
But Colbert said that with the increased scrutiny nationwide on alleged misconduct by police officers, city residents may be less satisfied with having a judge decide the case. Gray’s case fueled national tension over the deaths of young black men in police custody and set off demonstrations and riots in Baltimore.
“From a public interest perspective, the community will have a more difficult time accepting a verdict that didn’t come from a jury of the community,” Colbert said. “They already think the system is rigged.”
Goodson’s case is expected to focus on what responsibility he had for Gray the day the 25-year-old suffered a severe neck injury in the back of a police van. Goodson drove the van carrying Gray, and there were a series of stops throughout West Baltimore before Gray was found unresponsive in the back of the vehicle. He died one week later.
Prosecutors allege that Goodson is responsible for Gray’s death because he didn’t buckle Gray inside the van or get him immediate medical help “despite Mr. Gray’s obvious and recognized need for medical assistance.”
But Goodson’s attorneys argue that their client acted as any reasonable officer would and that detainees were rarely buckled into the back of police vans.
Police arrested Gray on April 12, 2015, after he made eye contact with police and ran. Officers chased and detained him before loading him into the back of the van with his hands and feet shackled.
A medical examiner determined that Gray suffered a broken neck in the back of the van after he stood up in the vehicle but could not break a fall during an abrupt turn or stop because his arms and legs were bound.
In addition to accepting Goodson’s request for a court trial, Judge Barry G. Williams granted a defense request to ban prosecutors from using information from a conversation Porter had with Detective Syreeta Teel. Porter, set for retrial this summer, has been ordered to testify in Goodson’s trial with limited immunity from prosecutors.
Teel testified during Porter’s trial that during an unrecorded phone call after Gray’s death, Porter told her that Gray said “I can’t breathe” at one of the van stops. Porter rebutted the account.
The information is important to prosecutors as they attempt to argue that officers knew Gray was in trouble but ignored his cries for help.
Williams said although the conversation is relevant to the case against Porter, allowing the testimony at Goodson’s trial would constitute hearsay.