BALTIMORE — The fate of a police officer facing four criminal charges in the arrest last year of Freddie Gray is now in the hands of a city judge.
Officer Edward M. Nero listened intently in court Thursday as the prosecution and his defense attorney made their closing arguments before Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams, who said he will issue his verdict Monday. Nero chose to have his case decided by a judge rather than a jury.
The 30-year-old is one of six Baltimore officers to face charges in the case of Gray, 25, whose death in police custody a week after his arrest on April 12, 2015, sparked rioting and widespread anger in the city. The case also has brought additional scrutiny to the deaths of young black men at the hands of police officers across the country.
Nero, who contends he acted as any reasonable police officer would have, has pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree assault and reckless endangerment and to two misconduct charges. All of the charges are misdemeanors.
An “arrest without a justification” is how Baltimore Deputy State’s Attorney Janice Bledsoe described Nero’s actions in her closing argument before a packed courtroom.
Bledsoe acknowledged that Nero and Officer Garrett E. Miller had a legal reason to make their initial stop of Gray because he ran from police in a high-crime area. But Nero is guilty of assault, Bledsoe argued, for continuing to detain Gray by handcuffing, searching and placing him in a prone position on the ground when, she said, Gray hadn’t done anything to justify the detention. There was, she said, a “complete lack of investigation” by Nero.
Monday’s verdict will be closely watched by city residents, the police and the broader legal community. Some in the city say the case sends a message that detaining citizens is a serious responsibility and that officers should be held to a strict standard. But Warren Alperstein, a Baltimore defense attorney whose work includes representing police officers in civil and criminal cases, worries that a guilty verdict on the assault charge would have a “dramatic chilling effect on Baltimore police officers, who would be reluctant to conduct a lawful stop and detention for fear that if they make a mistake they will be prosecuted despite acting in good faith.”
Because this was not a jury trial, Williams frequently interrupted closing arguments to question attorneys. On the misconduct charge related to the alleged assault, he repeatedly questioned Bledsoe about whether every arrest of an individual without probable cause rises to the level of a crime. Bledsoe seemed to indicate that she thought it did, although Michael Schatzow, chief deputy state’s attorney, later said that the state did not hold that all arrests without probable cause were criminal, only those where “the conduct of an officer is not objectively reasonable.”
Bledsoe also argued in her closing that Nero was guilty of reckless endangerment for failing to put a seat belt on Gray in the back of a police van. Prosecutors have said that Gray died from a severe neck injury that he incurred while being driven to Central Booking.
Nero, Bledsoe argued, was a trained emergency medical technician who knew that Gray was having difficulty breathing and that he had requested his inhaler. Yet, she said, the officer helped put Gray face-down on the floor of the van without making any attempt to put him in a seat belt.
“Officer Nero knew what the risks were to put him in a wagon unrestrained,” Bledsoe said. “He could be thrown around the wagon like a pinball, just going back and forth, back and forth.”
The requirement that policeseat-belt all prisoners being transported was a department policy that Nero would have been familiar with, Bledsoe said. There was a general order issued by the police commissioner that had been sent via email to all officers just days before Gray’s arrest. A “reasonable police officer follows all general orders,” Bledsoe said. “Nero had a duty to keep Freddie Gray safe.”
In his closing argument, Nero’s attorney, Marc Zayon, argued that the state had failed to prove any of its charges “beyond a reasonable doubt” and said that his client had acted as any reasonable Baltimore police officer would in every aspect of his involvement with Gray.
“The detention is okay. The cuffing is okay. The moving is okay,” he told Williams. “This happens all the time.”
Zayon also argued that the amount of time from when Gray was stopped until he was searched was just a minute and 28 seconds, hardly enough time, he said, to constitute an illegal arrest.
“I can’t believe I have to argue this,” he told the judge. “Being detained and handcuffed is a horrible thing, but the law allows it.”
Zayon said that the state had done nothing to prove that his client’s actions were “so unreasonable that no other officer would have acted this way.” The standard on which Nero should be judged, he told the judge, “is what would a reasonable officer similarly situated do.”
Zayon also argued that the state could not prove that his client had read the general order issued by the commissioner regarding seat belts. In addition, Zayon said, a general order is not a law. He noted that every witness who was asked had said it was the wagon driver’s responsibility to seat-belt prisoners.
Schatzow finished the day’s arguments by restating the government’s case that Nero’s actions by not seat-belting Gray recklessly endangered his life and that Nero’s initial detention and arrest of Gray constituted assault.
“Someone’s got to use logic, judge, and we’re counting on you,” he said to Williams.
“I will,” the judge replied.