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Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow, left, and Deputy State’s Attorney of Criminal Intelligence Janice Bledose staffers walk to Baltimore City Circuit Court last month. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun via AP)

Prosecutor derides Porter’s inaction; defense warns of ‘rush to judgment’

Jury hears opening salvos in Freddie Gray case

With a city still recovering from last spring’s riots, a defense attorney urged jurors Wednesday not to “rush to judgment” in the trial of a Baltimore police officer accused of killing through criminal inaction a gravely injured black man whose death has become a nationwide symbol of police brutality.

“Facts are stubborn,” Gary E. Proctor said in telling the jury that Officer William Porter sought to assist Freddie Gray and did not ignore what prosecutors called his pleas for help.

“Pay attention to the witnesses,” Proctor added.

Proctor pressed Porter’s case in an opening statement at Baltimore City Circuit Court, where the officer stands accused of involuntary manslaughter, second degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment in Gray’s death last April. Porter, the first of six officers scheduled to tried in connection with Gray’s death, faces up to 25 years in prison.

“Mr. Gray’s death was a tragedy,” said Proctor, a Baltimore solo practitioner. But Porter is “an innocent man.”

Proctor’s remarks followed Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow’s opening statement that Porter failed to assist Gray after he was severely injured while in custody and being transported in a police van.

Porter failed “to do his duty when he had the opportunity,” Schatzow told the jury, adding Gray died

Gray died “as a result of the injuries he suffered in this van while in police custody.”

The prosecution alleges Porter did not render aid to Gray even though Gray asked for medical attention after being arrested, handcuffed and shackled at his feet, then driven in a police transport van for about 45 minutes in April.

‘Effective’ statements

Gray’s death triggered protests and rioting in the city and helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement.

Proctor, in contrast to the prosecution’s argument, told the jury that Porter had assisted Gray when he told the officer to “help me up.”

“That’s exactly what [Porter] did,” Proctor said. “He helped Mr. Gray up.”

The defense attorney added that testimony at trial would show that Porter asked Gray if he wanted medical assistance and that Gray “was verbal [and] expressed no pain.”

Law professor Douglas Colbert, who has written extensively on politically sensitive trials, said he found merit in both opening statements.

Schatzow’s argument was “extremely effective” and “allowed the jury to feel the situation as Freddie Gray experienced,” said Colbert, who teaches at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. “Everything depends on whether the prosecution delivers as promised.”

Meanwhile, Proctor “planted seeds for establishing reasonable doubt” as to Porter’s guilt, Colbert said.

The case could come down to “what the officer knew” of Gray’s condition, the professor added.

Colbert, however, cautioned against making any assumptions or predictions from opening statements.

“We’re in the first day of a 10- or 15-day trial,” he said. “Everything has to be seen from that perspective.”

Change of venue denied

Opening statements followed the seating of the jury Wednesday morning, a selection process that was relatively brisk, given defense assertions in pretrial proceedings that it would be impossible to seat an impartial panel. Judge Barry Williams repeatedly denied defense motions to move the trial out of Baltimore.

Williams questioned 150 jurors over two days, mostly out of public view, in an efficient process designed to shield their identities. Some were dismissed, leaving a smaller pool for the final selection of 12 — eight women and four men — and four alternates.

Gray, 25, died April 19 of a severe spinal injury he suffered while riding in the back of police van without a seatbelt, a violation of department policy. Porter is accused of failing to get him medical help during several stops on the 45-minute trip. Gray arrived at a police station unresponsive, was taken to a hospital and died a week later.

According to a pretrial filing by defense attorneys, Porter told investigators that arresting Gray “was always a big scene” and indicated that he knew of a previous arrest in which Gray allegedly tried to kick out the windows of a police vehicle.

“You know, so he was always, always, like, banging around,” Porter said in the filing.

Porter will likely take the stand in his own defense.

Setting the tone

Prospective juror Franz Schneiderman said he was interviewed individually by the judge after he indicated that he had been accused in or the victim of a crime. He told the judge he had some “unfortunate” experiences with Baltimore police, but believed he would be able to render a fair verdict. He was still dismissed.

For several days after Gray died, the demonstrations were mostly peaceful. But on the day he was buried, looting and rioting started, and businesses were burned down. The unrest caused at least $33 million in property damage and police overtime.

A verdict will likely to set the tone for the city. If Porter is acquitted, there could be protests and possibly more unrest. A conviction could send shock waves through the city’s troubled police department.

Two other officers are black and the three additional officers are white. They will be tried separately beginning in January. Their trials are expected to last until the spring.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.