BALTIMORE — The highest-ranking officer charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray has decided to forgo a jury trial, leaving his fate in a judge’s hands.
In a hearing Tuesday, Lt. Brian Rice opted for a bench trial before Judge Barry G. Williams, making him the third officer charged in the case to waive his right to a trial by jury.
The judge denied motions by defense attorneys to dismiss the indictment against Rice, who faces counts of manslaughter, reckless endangerment, assault and misconduct in office in connection with Gray’s death last year. The 25-year-old sustained a fatal neck injury while being transported in the back of a police van.
Opening statements are set to begin Thursday at 9:30 a.m. in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
Rice, 42, is one of six officers charged and the fourth to be tried in the case. Prosecutors have yet to secure a conviction. Two officers were acquitted on all charges in bench trials before Williams; the trial of a third ended in a hung jury.
Police arrested Gray the morning of April 12, 2015, after he made eye contact with Rice and other officers on bike patrol and fled. After a brief chase, the officers shackled Gray’s wrists and legs and loaded him into a police van without seat-belting him.
At some point during the ride to jail, Gray suffered a severe neck injury. He died a week later. A medical examiner’s report suggests that the injury occurred when the van made a sudden stop or turn and Gray, unable to brace himself, struck his head.
Prosecutors allege Rice put Gray’s life in danger when he failed to seat-belt him. They also say police lacked probable cause to arrest Gray in the first place.
Rice’s attorneys contend that none of the lieutenant’s actions were criminal, saying it was common practice at the time not to seat-belt detainees.
Prosecutors face an uphill battle convincing Williams to find Rice guilty, legal experts said. In the most recent trial, the judge found that the van driver’s failure to seat-belt Gray was not a criminal offense, even if it violated police orders — a conclusion that could leave prosecutors scrambling, said Warren Alperstein, a defense lawyer and former Baltimore prosecutor.
“Unless the state can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Lieutenant Rice, being a supervisor, had a better understanding of the risks of not restraining Freddie Gray than the van driver, then the state very likely will fail to convict him as well,” Alperstein said.
University of Maryland law professor Doug Colbert, who has followed the case closely, said he expects prosecutors in Rice’s trial to focus on what a “reasonable officer” would have done differently in Rice’s position.
“The judge wants to hear an independent expert say, ‘This is the way a prisoner must be treated when taken into police custody,’ ” Colbert said.
In Tuesday’s hearing, Williams shot down a motion to dismiss the case by Rice’s attorneys, who accused the state of “prosecutorial misconduct.” The judge also denied the defense’s request to dismiss the reckless-endangerment count.
“The court is satisfied that the charge as presented in the indictment is legally sufficient,” Williams said.
The judge did criticize prosecutors for waiting until just days before trial to turn over some 4,000 pages of training documents from Rice’s time in the Baltimore Police Department. Prosecutors said they requested the documents late and shared them with the defense as soon as they received them. But the judge ordered the documents excluded from the case, saying the late disclosure amounted to a discovery violation.
“You, your office, whoever, didn’t do what you were supposed to do,” Williams said. “What I don’t understand is, why would you expect this court to allow you to drop 4,000 pages on the defense and not to be in some level of trouble?”
The judge has barred prosecutors and defense attorneys from speaking publicly about the case.
Rice’s trial comes just weeks after the judge acquitted Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., the van’s driver, on all counts, including second-degree depraved-heart murder. Prosecutors alleged Goodson gave Gray a “rough ride,” driving recklessly as Gray was tossed around in the van’s prisoner compartment. He faced the most serious charges in the case.
Officer Edward M. Nero was acquitted in May of assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office, following a bench trial. Officer William G. Porter is scheduled to be retried in September, after a jury failed to reach a verdict on his charges late last year.
Gray’s death came amid a fevered national debate over the deaths of young black men in police custody and sparked demonstrations and later riots throughout Baltimore.