BALTIMORE — Freddie Gray was “flailing” and “screaming” during his arrest the morning of April 12, 2015, Officer Edward M. Nero told police investigators in a recorded video interview made later that day. But Nero, now on trial in connection with Gray’s arrest, said the 25-year-old showed no sign of physical injury or difficulty breathing.
In the video, which was played during his trial Friday, Nero said Gray was “not huffing and puffing or anything like that. . . . He’s just screaming.” He said Gray resisted arrest and then banged around in a police van after he was loaded in without being secured by a seat belt.
Gray was later found unconscious and bleeding in the back of the van; he died a week later, having never regained consciousness. Nero is among six officers facing charges related to Gray’s arrest and death. The videotaped account marks the first time that Nero’s version of the events of that morning have been made public.
The two looming issues in Nero’s case are whether Gray’s arrest was legal and whether the officer was responsible for seat-belting Gray inside the police van. The officer is charged with assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct.
In the interview, Nero recalled chasing Gray with two other bike officers and arriving as Gray was being handcuffed. Nero said that after retrieving another officer’s bike, he helped restrain Gray.
“He was not being very cooperative. . . . He flailed around a lot,” Nero said. “We tried to restrain him as much as possible.”
Nero, who is also trained as an emergency medical technician, said that he never heard Gray say he couldn’t breathe but that Gray did ask for his inhaler. Nero said officers asked Gray where his inhaler was, and he said he didn’t have it. He said he watched for signs that Gray was in distress.
“Did it look like he was having an asthma attack?” Detective Michael Boyd, one of the investigators, asked Nero in the interview.
“No, not at all,” Nero replied.
Instead, he said, Gray simply “didn’t want to go” with police and was trying to “make a scene.”
“So, was he being passive-aggressive?” Boyd asked.
“In a way, yeah,” Nero replied.
Gray continued to resist, Nero said, as the officers put him in a police wagon. He was initially placed on a bench. Another investigator asked Nero whether Gray was then seat-belted.
“No,” Nero replied.
After the wagon’s door was closed, the vehicle moved a couple of blocks to get away from onlookers who had gathered at the scene. Nero followed on his bike. After the van stopped, Gray again became disruptive, Nero said.
“He’s continuously just slamming himself into the wagon,” Nero said. “Moving, banging.” So, the officer told investigators, Gray was removed from the vehicle and re-handcuffed. His legs were shackled, and he was loaded onto the van floor on his stomach, face first.
“It took all of us to push him back in,” Nero said, because Gray refused to move. Again, he said, Gray didn’t appear to be in physical distress.
Nero’s defense attorney, Marc Zayon, argued that in the taped interview, his client often used “we” rather than “I.” Zayon said Nero was referring to the actions of all of the police officers on the scene and not things that he specifically did.
But Nero did say at one point, “Miller and I, we got him in custody.”
The interview was the key moment in the second day of testimony, as prosecutors continued to seek to show that Nero had no reason to arrest Gray and thus the arrest itself constitutes assault. The reckless endangerment charge against Nero is for his failure to secure Gray with a seat belt in the police wagon.
Stanford O’Neil Franklin, a former head of training for the Baltimore City police, testified that a reasonable officer would have quickly patted Gray down and ascertained the reason for the stop rather than immediately arresting him.
“We’re talking about constitutional rights; we’re talking about the Fourth Amendment,” Franklin said.
A reasonable officer also would have seat-belted Gray inside the van, Franklin said.
The defense contends that there was justifiable cause for police to chase Gray that day and sought to make its point during cross-examination.
At one point, Zayon questioned prosecution witness Brandon Ross, a friend of Gray’s who witnessed his arrest. Zayon suggested that Gray ran from the police; Ross insisted that his friend began running before the officers were spotted.
However, Ross acknowledged that he saw the police “seconds” after his friend began to run.
Zayon also tried to establish that the neighborhood where the chase took place was an area known for crime and drug sales. “It’s fair to say drugs are sold in the Gilmor Homes?” Zayon asked
“Where drugs not being sold in Baltimore City?” Ross retorted, to laughter in the courtroom. “Drugs is being sold everywhere. I can’t say if drugs are being sold in the Gilmor Homes.”
Zayon noted that Ross lied by using a false name to call 911 after Gray was loaded into the police van and that Ross inaccurately told investigators that an electronic shock weapon was used on his friend. Ross said that he changed his name to avoid retaliation from officers and that he thought he had heard something that “sounded like a Taser.”
Ross, who was with Gray that morning, testified that he saw Nero help throw his friend into the back of a police van, grabbing his feet. But he agreed that when Gray was initially dragged down the street in handcuffs, Nero was retrieving another officer’s bicycle.
The prosecution is set to continue its case Monday. Nero opted for a bench trial rather than a jury trial, so his fate will be decided by Circuit Court Judge Barry G. Williams, who is hearing the cases of all six officers.