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Editorial: Promising start in Freddie Gray hearings

Wednesday was the first day of pretrial hearings into motions filed on behalf of six Baltimore city police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, and it was widely watched in the city and across the nation – both for what happened inside and what transpired outside Circuit Judge Barry Williams’ courtroom.

Inside, Williams dealt with several motions brought by the officers’ attorneys, and he dealt with them swiftly and wisely. No, the charges are not going to be dismissed. No, the state’s attorney and her staff are not going to be removed from the case.

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On the most substantive motion – that which dealt with whether the officers should be tried in two groups or individually – Williams also ruled prudently. The ham-handed plan by Marilyn J. Mosby’s prosecutorial team, in which they argued that some of the factoids of the case that were shared by the police officers justified their linkage as defendants, didn’t fly. Williams pointed out that, absent a conspiracy charge, the burden for trying the officers together was borne by the prosecutors. That was not a burden they could carry.

Williams essentially restored order and brought structure to proceedings that had devolved into a series of frontal assaults against Mosby and her team by attorneys for the police officers, plus some grandstanding by Mosby herself. Williams made it clear that while he thought some of Mosby’s comments were ill-advised, they hardly justified her removal. There are other forums for complaints about Mosby’s remarks to be aired.

Williams next week is scheduled to hear a joint defense motion for a change of venue for the trials of the officers. The officers’ attorneys argue that it’s impossible for the five men and one woman who are charged to get a fair trial, that the case has been politicized and publicized to such a toxic degree that no impartial Baltimore jury can be empaneled.

We wholeheartedly disagree. We think the citizens of this city not only can fairly sit in judgment on this case, we think it’s essential that they do so.

This is not a trial that will proceed in a vacuum or with any degree of obscurity. Of the three major cases of alleged excessive use of force by police that have galvanized this nation’s debate on race relations and policing – the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and the death of Gray in Baltimore from injuries suffered while he was being transported in a police van – only the Gray case has led to criminal prosecutions. How this trial unfolds is not just of local interest.

Such is also the case with the protests and the demonstrations held outside the courthouse Wednesday. The legitimate and constitutionally protected rallies and marches that spiraled into violence over two days in April have been much dissected. The city’s lack of preparation for the violence and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s stumbling leadership had led some to be concerned about a repeat. Nothing of much account happened Wednesday, prompting a round of self-congratulatory and premature back-patting from the mayor. This week’s tepid demonstrations, which featured numerous placards that misspelled Gray’s name, hardly were a test for the city’s responsiveness.

Ultimately, two things need to happen in Baltimore. For the longer term, the city’s neighborhoods that are mired in economic depression and social hopelessness need to be restored. Of immediate concern is the need for a fair, transparent trial of the police officers accused in Gray’s death.

Wednesday was a promising start.