The smoke from the riots has long disappeared, along with the National Guard troops who guarded the city, and the ashes of the CVS that was looted and burned.
But scars from April’s civil unrest in Baltimore linger, along with a question: What happened to Freddie Gray?
It is an answer jurors will begin to tackle in coming weeks as the first of six high-profile trials for officers charged in Gray’s death is set to begin Monday. But selecting the 12 men and women who will answer that question in a city where almost every resident was affected by riots, demonstrations or curfews after Gray’s death will present challenges for prosecutors and defense attorneys. And with fears that unrest could again upend the city, experts say careful selection of a diverse and fair jury will be key in determining how the public reacts to a verdict.
“The stakes are so high because any perceived unfairness could trigger more community outrage,” said Carolyn Koch, a Virginia-based jury consultant and lawyer who does work nationwide.
The trial of Officer William G. Porter, 26, is scheduled to run until at least mid-December and will be closely watched as the public seeks new details that could further explain how Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal injury in a police wagon before dying about a week later. Porter, who prosecutors allege failed to get Gray medical attention, faces charges of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment.
Valerie Hans, a professor at Cornell University Law School, said jury selection in the Freddie Gray trials will be similar to those in the Boston Marathon bombing two years ago and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
“These are instances where entire communities have been affected by cases,” said Hans, who studies jury selection.
She said attorneys on both sides will want to know people’s experiences during the protests and rioting that followed Gray’s death and whether those experiences caused them to form an opinion about the case.
Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, a jury consultant who has worked on high-profile trials, including those of O.J. Simpson and the officers accused of beating Rodney King, said attorneys will also have to explore jurors’ links to national protests related to alleged excessive force by police.
“Did you live in the area where the rioting and protesting were going on?” Dimitrius said she would ask. “Were people close to them participating in the demonstrations? What are their attitudes and experiences with law enforcement?”
In a recent Atlanta case involving an officer, prospective jurors were asked about the fatal police-involved shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York.
In a pretrial hearing last week, Circuit Court Judge Barry G. Williams told attorneys that he expects about 75 to 80 potential jurors to appear for the first round of voir dire Monday. But it is unclear how long it will take to seat a jury or how many more of the city’s roughly 600,000 residents have been issued summonses.
For the trial of James Holmes in the 2012 movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., the jury pool was 9,000 people, Fox News reported. Nearly 1,400 prospective jurors submitted background questionnaires in the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, according to the Boston Globe. And about 1,000 potential jurors were called for the Simpson trial, Dimitrius said, with a similar number for one of the trials of the Los Angeles police officers accused of beating King.
And although it took a month to seat a jury in the Simpson case and more than six months in the trial of serial killer Richard Ramirez, Maryland’s selection procedure may prevent such a protracted process. Maryland employs “limited voir dire,” which means the judge, not attorneys, have control over interviewing prospective jurors.
Williams told attorneys they should expect to spend about 15 to 20 minutes in a conference room with him and each prospective juror who needed to provide follow-up information in response to questions posed during jury questioning.
Robert Bonsib, a lawyer who has practiced in the District and Maryland for more than 35 years, said such questioning typically takes minutes while standing at the judge’s bench.
“That suggests that the court has developed a very extensive series of questions to ask the jurors,” Bonsib said. “In a case like this, I would think the judge would be somewhat liberal with follow-up questions from attorneys because of the potential bias on the parts of prospective jurors.”
Experts say attorneys will also be looking for jurors who may be more sympathetic to their theories of the case. But what each side is looking for in the Gray proceedings is a reversal of what prosecutors and defense attorneys generally seek.
“Usually, prosecutors want juries who have a great deal of respect for police, loathe crime and often find it difficult to place themselves in the role of the defendant,” said Douglas Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor who has studied police misconduct cases and race discrimination in jury selection. “In this case, the defense will be looking for jurors prosecutors typically favor — people who don’t have positive feelings toward the Freddie Grays of this world.”
Gray was arrested April 12 when an officer made eye contact with him and Gray fled. After he was stopped, police found that he was carrying a small pocket knife, and he was arrested, according to charging documents.
Porter, who has pleaded not guilty, was not present during Gray’s arrest. Porter checked on Gray as he was being transferred to central booking and asked Gray if he needed medical assistance, according to charging documents. Prosecutors allege Porter acted negligently by failing to call for medical help after Gray reported he could not breathe. The officer should have also restrained Gray with a seat belt in the back of the police van, prosecutors say.
The diversity of the jury will also play a major role in how Baltimoreans receive the verdict.
“The biggest challenge is making sure it’s a jury that looks like Baltimore — ensuring there is a good racial and ethnic diversity, since the views of police differ along those grounds,” Hans said. “It will be more likely the case will be accepted as valid by the city.”
Many jurisdictions struggle with diversity on juries because lower-income residents often move more than their wealthier neighbors, and sometimes miss a jury summons, Hans said. And when it comes time to select a jury, service often poses a greater economic hardship for hourly workers than for salaried employees. As a result, juries are whiter and more affluent, Hans said. That could be an issue in the Baltimore case because Gray grew up and was arrested in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Both Gray and Porter are black.
Koch said attorneys will also be challenged by the potential “hardship parade” — jurors who say they cannot serve because they are caregivers, have planned vacations or have invented excuses because they don’t want to be part of a potentially lengthy, high-stakes trial.
“Jurors will have to get over personal fears that what they decide might lead to further violence,” Koch said. “That’s a huge additional burden.”
But legal experts and longtime Baltimore defense lawyers say there is only one question that really matters, regardless of jurors’ knowledge of the case and how they were affected by riots and demonstrations: Can they make an unbiased decision based on the evidence presented at trial?
It can be done, said José F. Anderson, a sixth-generation city resident and professor at the University of Baltimore. Most jurors, he said, embrace their responsibilities and try to be fair.
It is what city residents are called to do in the more than 800 jury trials that come through Baltimore City Circuit Court each year.
“They work hard at it,” Anderson said. “They may be influenced by external factors, but their heart is to try to get it right.”
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