BALTIMORE — Officer William G. Porter had five chances to help Freddie Gray. Again and again, prosecutors said, he failed to call for paramedics or buckle Gray into a police van, actions they said would have prevented the 25-year-old’s death from a spinal injury.
Porter’s attorney said the officer lifted Gray from the floor of the police wagon onto a seat and asked him if he needed medical help. Gray had a reputation of feigning injury to avoid arrest, the defense attorney said, and Porter thought that he was yelling and acting out because he didn’t want to go to jail, not because he had been seriously hurt while being driven to Central Booking.
During the first of six trials for officers charged in the Freddie Gray case, prosecutors and defense attorneys Wednesday laid out sharply differing narratives of the events that led to the young man’s death and set the city aflame in April. Which account jurors ultimately believe is at the heart of the case. Was Porter so indifferent and negligent that his actions amount to involuntary manslaughter? Or was Gray’s death a tragedy but not a crime?
Prosecutor Michael Schatzow didn’t pinpoint precisely when Gray was hurt, but he said that he probably struck his head when the van was in motion. Gray’s neck was broken as if he dived into a shallow pool, Schatzow said.
The prosecutor described Porter as callous, saying his failure to buckle in Gray or call for help showed that he simply “didn’t care.”
“He had a duty to keep safe persons who are in custody,” Schatzow said. “Evidence shows that this defendant criminally neglected his duty to keep Mr. Gray safe.”
Porter’s attorneys, however, insisted that the officer did what any other officer would have done when dealing with Gray, who they said initially showed no signs of injury. They painted a portrait of an officer who cared about the residents in the neighborhood where he patrolled and grew up. Porter, 26, has never fired his gun and has no major blemishes on his record. They said that many officers did not routinely buckle up people in custody in police wagons and that Porter didn’t know about a recent policy change mandating such restraints.
Porter “didn’t become a police officer to swing a big stick,” Gary Proctor, an attorney for the officer, said. “He became a police officer to help people.”
The competing theories were laid out in opening statements, which followed 21/2 days of jury selection. Judge Barry G. Williams seated the panel of 12 men and women — eight of whom appear to be black and four white — from a pool of roughly 150.
Attorneys told the jury that during the trial, they will be presented with various pieces of evidence and witness testimony from each of the stops involved in Gray’s arrest and transport. That evidence will include video surveillance from cameras in the city, recordings of radio dispatches among police officers and cellphone videos taken by bystanders. They also will be taken to see the van Gray was riding in when he was injured.
The defense told jurors that they also would hear directly from Porter.
Legal experts have said that the case is a difficult one for prosecutors, who allege that Porter and five other officers bear the blame for Gray’s death not because of their actions but their inaction. During this arrest and transport, prosecutors say, Gray was improperly placed in the van and his pleas for help were repeatedly ignored.
Gray’s mother, Gloria Darden, and other family members were in court Wednesday, listening quietly and leaning on each other for support as attorneys presented their cases.
The account Schatzow gave the jury largely followed the allegations presented months ago in charging documents that Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby read aloud to a city rocked by riots.
[A city on edge as first trial in Freddie Gray case begins]
Gray ran from Baltimore officers on the morning of April 12 but was eventually caught, found to be carrying a knife and put into a police van for transport, he said. The van stopped at several points after his arrest, and Porter was at five of the six stops.
“I can’t breathe,” Gray told Porter during the fourth stop, according to Schatzow. Porter asked Gray if he needed a medic but never received help, shirking his training and department guidelines, Schatzow said.
Gray was barely conscious by the time the police van stopped for a fifth time, Schatzow said, to pick up an unrelated suspect at the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues.
“Mr. Gray was in a lot of trouble, and every minute that he was delayed . . . meant that his chances of survival were growing dimmer and dimmer and dimmer,” Schatzow said.
Porter got out of his police car at that fifth stop, Schatzow said, and again asked Gray if he needed a medic. Again, Gray said yes, according to Schatzow, but Porter did nothing.
“He’s slumped way over to the right . . . crumpled to his knees, he’s just laying there limp,” said Schatzow. He added that Porter told investigators that Gray was in the same position when he was taken out of the van at the final stop, the Western District police station.
But Porter’s attorneys said it was unclear that Gray was suffering a medical emergency. Instead, Proctor said, Gray was known among officers for faking injuries to get out of arrests.
Gray was not showing any “outward sign of injury” when Porter checked on him during two stops of the police van, so the officer did not seek care, Proctor said. Porter knew that “it was always a big deal when they tried to arrest Freddie Gray,” Proctor said. “He knew he didn’t go quietly.” In a previous arrest, Proctor alleged, Gray tried to kick out the windows of a police car.
The only time Porter put a hand on Gray, Proctor said, was “to help him up.”
City officers also rarely buckled detainees into police vehicles, Proctor said. Porter’s attorneys said they expect to call an officer who will testify that out of 2,000 arrests, only a handful of those detained were put in seat belts.
[Freddie Gray and William Porter: Two sons of Baltimore whose lives collided.]
Both sides agree that Gray was rocking the van once inside. Schatzow said that after the second stop, Gray climbed to his feet and was “shaking the van” and kicking the door from the inside. After a third stop, the van driver requested help from additional officers to check on Gray’s condition.
If Gray appeared lethargic or breathless, Porter thought it was because Gray had been vigorously shaking the van, the attorney said. Proctor quoted Porter’s statement to police on his assessment of Gray’s condition: “I thought he was having an adrenaline dump.”
Proctor highlighted the statement of someone who was in custody in the back of the police van with Gray for part of the trip. He quoted Donta Allen, who initially told authorities that Gray was acting like a “crazy man” and was banging his head into the wall of the van. Allen later recanted his statement to police.
Porter, who has been a police officer for less than two years, grew up in the same neighborhood as Gray. In addition to involuntary manslaughter, he faces charges of second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment.
The trial is expected to continue until mid-December in a city that is still on edge. At the end of his opening statement, Proctor implored the jury not to be swayed by fears of further riots.
“Let’s show Baltimore the whole damn system is not as guilty as hell,” Proctor told the jury. “Mr. Gray’s death is a tragedy. So is charging someone who did not precipitate it.”
Michael S. Rosenwald contributed to this report.
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