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Members of the Peoples Power Assembly celebrate on Thursday after a Baltimore judge ruled not to change the venues for the criminal trials of six police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Judge keeps Freddie Gray criminal trials in Baltimore

Defense attorneys ask potential jurors to consider all evidence during trials

The six trials of Baltimore police officers charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray will be held in the city.

“I believe that each citizen of Baltimore has the ability to think on his or her own,” Judge Barry G. Williams said Thursday morning in denying a defense motion to change the venue.

Potential jurors won’t be swayed by politicians or others connected with the case to disregard their oath, he added.

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Williams said he would reconsider the issue, however, if it is shown that voir dire is insufficient to seat an impartial jury. Prosecutors asked Williams to at least attempt to seat the jury before deciding to remove the trials from the jurisdiction where the alleged crime occurred.

In announcing his decision, Williams said the defense did not provide evidence that any potential jurors had actually been prejudiced but asks for the court to find that an impartial jury can’t be found.

“It’s easy to pick out opinions and use them as the barometer of what all think, but that is not reality,” Williams said.

Ivan J. Bates, speaking after the court proceedings on behalf of the defense attorneys, said they were disappointed with the judge’s rulings but would abide by them.

Bates, of Bates & Garcia LLC in Baltimore, said he does not lack faith in city residents but expressed concern about the facts the defense believes the state has omitted thus far.

The defense asked citizens to be patient, listen to the entire story and “figure out what happened in that van,” Bates said. If they do, he added, they will see the officers acted reasonably.

The six officers — Caesar R. Goodson Jr., Garret E. Miller, Edward M. Nero, William G. Porter, Brian W. Rice and White — pleaded not guilty in June to charges ranging from second-degree murder to reckless endangerment in connection with Gray’s death in April from injuries suffered while in police custody, which spawned widespread protests and rioting in Baltimore.

All six officers are currently scheduled to have trials Oct. 13. Williams ruled last week that each defendant will have his or her own trial.

Media attention

In court Thursday, Bates had argued for all the defendants that prejudicial pretrial publicity as well as the unrest following Gray’s death has created a biased jury pool, meaning the officers cannot be guaranteed a fair trial in the city.

Bates specifically mentioned the $6.4 million civil settlement reached between the city and Gray’s family that was announced Wednesday.

“We cannot have a single juror who is not a taxpayer,” said Bates, who represents White. Potential jurors are also paying for damage from the riots and looting, he added.

The defense alleged there are approximately 267,000 eligible jurors in the city, less than half of the population. But Williams, after reviewing case law, said the proper measurement of the size of a jury pool is the total population, which is more than 600,000. The six trials would require at least 72 impartial jurors, not including alternates.

Williams questioned whether Bates had spoken with potential jurors to know they have perceived the publicity as indicating the officers’ guilt. Bates, while mentioning the public push for voter registration, presumably to add biased jurors to the pool, told Williams he has no evidence people actually registered to vote with that intention as a result.

But Bates maintained local and national media attention on the case has also impacted jurors, who claimed State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby held a “public trial” when she held a press conference amid the unrest to announce charges.

“The state concedes there has been a lot of publicity,” Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow said in response. “Maybe unprecedented publicity.”

Possible juror bias can be investigated, however, he said.

“Nobody knows what the sentiments of the jurors are until you ask them about it on voir dire,” he told Williams.

Williams said the way the public gets news has changed radically from the mid-20th century, when some of the cited case law was decided. Smartphones and the Internet give local, state, national and international readers and listeners the chance to access information.

“In this day and age, what does one do with a high-profile case?” he asked.

Schatzow said the defense had to prove that pretrial publicity had prejudiced their clients, not merely that potential jurors have been exposed to the facts of the case.

Bates told Williams national publicity has died down since the aftermath of Gray’s death, but local publicity “keeps churning.” That prompted Williams to ask Bates if he had read the news lately.

‘We dealt with it’

Woodlawn resident Tanika Frasier said outside the courthouse Thursday she does not remember growing up with this much publicity — locally or nationally — around alleged police brutality incidents, though everyone in the community knew it was happening.

“Your mother talked about it and your pastor talked about it,” she said.

Frasier, who is a member of Faith Empowered Ministries, said she attended Thursday’s demonstrations on behalf of Pastor Westley West, 27, who was arrested Wednesday after allegedly blocking traffic last week during a protest.

Young people have taught older generations to change the way they talk about police and their interactions with the public, according to Frasier, and she said she hopes they continue to do so.

“I don’t want them to do what we did at that age,” she said. “We took it. We dealt with it.”

Christopher Green, of Parkville, said he missed his government class at the Community College of Baltimore County, where he is in his third year, to attend Thursday’s demonstrations.

Green, another member of Faith Empowered Ministries, said he thought it was important to be at the courthouse in West’s stead.

The Rev. Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon, meanwhile, told protestors keeping the trials in Baltimore was a preliminary victory.

“Let’s continue to march on, soliders,” he said to the crowd. “Let’s continue to get justice for Freddie Gray.”

Following the decision to keep the trial in Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Interim Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, told reporters the city will be prepared to handle any protests as the trials begin.

“I’m confident that the judge made the right decision,” Rawlings-Blake said. “It will allow the city to heal.”

Daily Record Business Writer Adam Bednar contributed to this story