The police officer who faces the most serious charge in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray heads to court this week as prosecutors continue to seek a victory in the high-profile case that set off demonstrations and riots in Baltimore.
The third trial in the case will focus on what responsibility officer Caesar Goodson Jr., 46, had for Gray the day he suffered a fatal neck injury in the back of a police van. Goodson was the van’s driver.
Prosecutors allege that Goodson is responsible for Gray’s death because he failed to buckle the 25-year-old inside the vehicle or get him medical help. They argue Goodson acted recklessly and callously, “despite Mr. Gray’s obvious and recognized need for medical assistance.”
Goodson’s attorneys counter that their client acted as any reasonable officer would that April day last year and that “the failure of a police officer to seatbelt [a] detainee cannot alone constitute a criminally reckless omission.”
Goodson, one of six officers charged in the case, is the only one to face a murder charge. The count against him — second-
degree depraved-heart murder — carries a penalty of up to 30 years in prison.
Prosecutors will have to prove that Goodson’s actions or lack of actions created a very high risk to Gray’s life and that despite being aware of such risks, Goodson acted “with extreme disregard of the life-endangering consequences.”
Two officers have gone to trial. One was acquitted; the other case ended in mistrial.
Goodson’s trial will revolve around what he knew of Gray’s condition, what decisions he made as a result and whether he was the person who had final charge over any decisions made about Gray’s care and custody, said Marshall Henslee, a Baltimore defense attorney who is not connected to the case.
“When you’re the police and you’ve taken someone into your custody, you’re responsible,” Henslee said.
“There are rules and regulations and police policies, but as with all these police policies and procedures, officers are always given a certain amount of discretion to assess the situation and do what they think is best,” he said.
Gray was arrested in his West Baltimore neighborhood on April 12, 2015, after making eye contact with police and running away. Police chased and detained Gray and put him in the back of a police van that made a series of stops on the way to central booking.
An autopsy report said Gray suffered a broken neck in the back of the van. The medical examiner concluded that it occurred when Gray stood up in the vehicle with shackled arms and legs and could not break his fall during an abrupt turn or stop.
One week after suffering his severe injury, Gray died, fueling national tension over the deaths of young black men in police custody.
A gag order prevents prosecutors and defense attorneys from speaking publicly about the case.
Goodson’s trial follows the acquittal of officer Edward Nero last month and will probably mirror many of the arguments set out in the trial of officer William G. Porter in December.
In Porter’s trial, which ended in a hung jury, prosecutors argued that the officer had numerous opportunities to secure Gray in the back of the police van and get Gray medical help after he requested a medic, yet the officer ignored Gray’s safety and health.
But Porter, who took the stand in his own defense, argued that Gray was known to feign injury to avoid jail and officers rarely buckled detainees in the back of transport vans.
Porter also appeared to shift responsibility for Gray’s care to Goodson, testifying that it was typically understood that van drivers have custody over detainees.
The notion that the van driver has ultimate responsibility over a detainee is one that Judge Barry G. Williams alluded to in his acquittal of Nero last month.
Prosecutors also said that Nero, who assisted in detaining Gray, was negligent for failing to put Gray in a seat belt.
“It is certainly reasonable to believe that before a vehicle pulls off, the officer who is charged with transporting a detainee may have the duty to make sure that the person being transported is properly secured and, if not, seek help from other officers if there is a need to do so,” Williams said in announcing Nero’s verdict.
Nero had chosen a trial by a judge rather than a jury.
Porter, who faces retrial this summer, is expected to be a key witness against Goodson. Prosecutors said their case against the van driver would be “gutted” without Porter.
After fierce legal wrangling that delayed trials in the case for months, the Maryland Court of Appeals determined Porter can be forced to take the stand against other officers with the promise that prosecutors won’t use what he says against him at his retrial.
Goodson has requested a jury trial. Jury selection is set to begin Tuesday after motions hearings Monday.