Baltimore officer acquitted of all charges in Freddie Gray case
BALTIMORE — A judge on Monday found the highest-ranking officer charged in Freddie Gray’s arrest and death not guilty on all counts, dealing a devastating blow to prosecutors, who have now tried four of the six officers initially indicted without winning a conviction.
Judge Barry G. Williams acquitted Lt. Brian Rice, 42, of manslaughter, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office after a week-long bench trial, finding that Rice did not commit a crime when he loaded Gray into a police transport van without seat-belting him. Gray suffered a fatal neck injury as he was being taken to a police station.
The verdict renews questions about whether the state should move forward with charges against the remaining officers or drop them. Two of Rice’s co-defendants were recently acquitted, and a third is awaiting retrial after a jury deadlocked in his case in December. Another two officers are set to be tried in the coming months.
Reading his verdict in a packed courtroom, Williams said that while Rice’s failure to seat-belt Gray “may have been a mistake and may have been bad judgment,” it didn’t amount to a crime. Prosecutors, he said, failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Rice acted with gross negligence, putting Gray’s life at risk.
These are the officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death Embed Share Play Video2:08
Six Baltimore police officers were charged after Freddie Gray’s death and arrest. Here’s who they are. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)
“There are a number of possibilities that this court could entertain,” Williams said.“However, the burden of proof rests with the state, and the court’s imaginings do not serve as a substitute for evidence.”
Police arrested Gray in West Baltimore the morning of April 12, 2015, after he ran from officers on bike patrol. Rice and other officers shackled his wrists and legs and put him in the prisoner compartment of a police van without restraining him. Prosecutors say he fell and struck his head. He died a week later.
Gray’s death became a flashpoint in an already roiling national debate over racial profiling and the deaths of black men in police custody. Peaceful demonstrations in Baltimore gave way to riots and looting in the days after the 25-year-old’s funeral, prompting officials to impose a citywide curfew and call in the National Guard to restore order.
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State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced charges against the officers in a nationally televised news conference, saying she would seek justice for the city’s young people. Mosby was not in the courtroom Monday. She has been present for previous verdicts.
Rice, wearing a gray suit and a blue dress shirt, shook hands with his lawyers after the verdict. Three of Rice’s co-defendants — Officers Caesar Goodson Jr., Edward Nero and Garrett Miller — sat in the front row of the courtroom and patted each other on the back. Goodson, the van driver, and Nero were both recently acquitted after bench trials. Miller is set to be tried at the end of July.
With three acquittals, a mistrial and no convictions — the court proceedings have taken on a significance of their own, exposing rifts between police and prosecutors, and underscoring the difficulty of putting police officers on trial for misconduct.
Events leading to Freddie Gray’s death, explained in augmented reality VIEW GRAPHIC
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Monday that he does not see the point of moving forward with the remaining trials against the officers. “It’s a waste of time and money,” Hogan said. “But that’s up to the court system to decide.”
David Jaros, a law professor with the University of Maryland in Baltimore, said Monday’s verdict will make it very difficult to convict the remaining officers.
“It’s clear that this is a very difficult case to prove and that absent some new evidence, it will be very hard for the state to convict against the other officers because the theory is essentially the same,” Jaros said.
But Jaros said it is important to consider the cases beyond a simple tally of wins and losses.
“If [a prosecutor] believes a crime was committed and they believe they’re sending a valuable message to the community about the value of a poor black man’s life or what is appropriate responsibility for a police officer there are benefits of this trial that can’t be measured in convictions and acquittals,” said Jaros.
Baltimore defense Attorney Warren A. Brown said Mosby’s streak of losses is the result of a hurried prosecution in which a police investigation was handed to the state on a Thursday and prosecutors announced charges the next day.
Brown said it would behoove prosecutors to seriously consider whether it is smart to keep moving forward with the remaining three trials, given the judge once again emphasized that cannot assume or presume information to fill in gaps in evidence he noted.
Rice’s trial played out against a backdrop of extraordinary national tension over the recent fatal police shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana, the killing of three police officers in Baton Rouge over the weekend, and the racially motivated shootings in Dallas that killed five police officers this month.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement Monday that Rice would now face an administrative review by the police department. “This has been a very difficult time for our city and I thank the community for their patience during this time and ask their continued respect for the judicial process as we move forward,” Rawlings-Blake said.
Outside court, about a half-dozen protesters received the news with disappointment.
The police union has scheduled a press conference for Monday afternoon.
Tawanda Jones, 38, a regular protester who has picketed at each trial, stood in front of the courthouse screaming in disgust. She said the state’s failure to convict an officer in the case stifles progress in addressing police brutality.
“Until we change these laws in place to keep these killer cops off the streets, it’s going to continuously happen,” Jones said.
Williams’ verdict echoes his findings in Goodson and Nero’s trials. In each case, the judge focused on whether the officers deliberately disregarded the department’s general orders requiring them to seat-belt detainees. For a third time, he has found their actions were not criminal.
In Rice’s case, the judge said prosecutors did not prove the lieutenant acted with “wanton and abandon indifference to human life” just because he didn’t put Gray in a seat belt. Williams added that failing to follow a general order requiring seat belts, even if Rice had been aware of it, “is not inherently criminal conduct.”
“Commission of a crime cannot simply be equated to failure to follow a general order,” Williams said.
In his remarks, Williams sought to resolve some ambiguity over the scene of Gray’s arrest. Throughout the trial, defense attorneys and prosecutors butted heads over whether a group of onlookers posed a threat to officers as they loaded Gray into the van. Rice’s lawyers said a nearby apartment complex was “emptying out” and an angry crowd was cursing at officers. Prosecutors contended that the scene was calm and that officers weren’t in any danger.
“It’s clear that emotions and tensions ran high on April 12, 2015 on Mount and Baker,” Williams said of the second stop of Gray’s trip to jail. “None of the individuals that testified indicated that it was a quiet time.”
Nearly all of the 16 witnesses who testified had taken the stand in trials against other officers charged in the case.
Prosecutors sought to show that Rice, as the senior officer on the scene, bore the responsibility for Gray’s death. They said he was well aware of department policy requiring officers to seat-belt all detainees but chose to ignore it. In closing arguments, prosecutor Janice Bledsoe said Rice’s actions were deliberate and that the lieutenant wanted to “punish and humiliate” Gray for resisting arrest.
Defense attorneys said Gray’s “belligerent” behavior that morning made it too dangerous for officers to climb into the van’s cramped prisoner compartment and seat-belt him. They said thatangry onlookers had surrounded the van and that officers rushed to leave the scene fearing for their safety. Rice’s decisions were “100 percent reasonable” given the circumstances, his attorneys said.
Prosecutors suffered setbacks throughout the proceedings. Before the trial began, the judge hit the state with a discovery violation, saying prosecutors waited until the last minute to provide the defense with some 4,000 pages of documents related to Rice’s training that they planned to introduce as evidence. The documents have not been made public, so it is unclear how the state planned to use them against the lieutenant.
Rice went into the trial facing five charges, but just before opening statements, prosecutors dropped a misconduct charge related to Gray’s arrest without explanation. Later, after prosecutors rested their case, the judge dismissed a count of second-degree assault, saying there was not enough evidence to let it go forward. In the same ruling, the judge signaled that he was on the verge of tossing the reckless endangerment charge but said he was obligated at that stage to view it in the light most favorable to the state.
A gag order from the judge remains in effect, barring prosecutors and defense attorneys from speaking publicly about the case.
Last month, officer Caesar Goodson Jr. was acquitted on murder, manslaughter and other counts after an eight-day bench trial. Goodson, the van driver, faced the most serious charges in the case. In May, officer Edward M. Nero was acquitted of assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office, also after a bench trial. Officer William G. Porter is awaiting retrial in September after a jury was unable to reach a decision in December.