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C. Fraser Smith: More than one verdict on the way

Once again, Baltimore goes on trial.

Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams will rule this morning on the guilt or innocence of a police officer in the Freddie Gary case.

Officer Edward M. Nero will be found guilty or go free.

Baltimore will still be on trial.

How will the city react?

If Nero is found innocent, will there be a replay of last year’s street violence? Or will most of the city be willing to see the result in the context of our judicial system?

Most of Baltimore knows we are in for a long process, one trial after another after another. There will be at least five more trials. And these will air more serious charges brought by State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. Those charges, questioned from the start, put her on trial as well.

Did she go too far and too fast? From the start, once again, observers worry that she allowed fears of further rioting to drive the severity of her charges. If they are not sustained, the fear goes, we could get a riot result.

But there are a number of reasons to expect a peaceful response.

The city has shown that it can handle provocative issues. This was true even at the time of the rioting.

The overwhelming majority of citizens reacted with restraint – within the system, demanding accountability, to be sure, but peacefully.

The world, no doubt, accords us little credit. Fires and looters got most of the television attention, the rioters’ depredations shown over and over again. In truth, hard as it may be for many outside to appreciate, most of the city was calm.

May that continue. Added to the guarded optimism, Baltimore has changed since Gray died.

Though it took way too long, many elements of the city have responded constructively to Gray’s death in police custody.

Much of the response suggests a fundamental change in the reality of the city. To the surprise of many, Mayor  Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did almost nothing to show concern for Sandtown-Winchester, where Gray lived.

Perhaps she was reluctant to suggest that rioting could be profitable. And then, unaccountably, she removed about $4 million in recreation money from her always-tight budget.

In what may have been a fundamental change in where the city must turn for help, private organizations stepped up. Johns Hopkins promised jobs, job development and a substantial buy-local campaign. Hopkins leadership brought at least 25 other businesses into the game.

There was a response from Gov. Larry Hogan. He  promised money to rid the city of dangerous, unhealthy vacant property. Too little follow-up has followed, but the promise is still there.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore and its Southwest Baltimore Partnership inaugurated a program to train young scientists. Rep. Elijah Cummings applauded the program as a meaningful step toward recognizing the talent and dreams of young black citizens who, unlike Freddie Gray, are being seen as talented and worthy.

At the same time, the city elected substantial new leadership – in the office of mayor and in the City Council. We must see these developments as hopeful, as an indication that people have not given up. (Much, of course, needs to be done, including an overhaul of the deplorable election process.)

Rawlings-Blake departs starting now – after  wisely choosing to give Commissioner Kevin Davis her full confidence. The likely next mayor (we assume) Catherine Pugh has promised to keep him. That bit of stability – plus Davis’ confidence-building work – bodes well for getting through difficult moments such as these.

To be sure, the real test will come later as the rest of the Gray trials play out over the summer and possibly beyond. The Nero case might well be seen as bearing less potential for unrest. He was not charged in Gray’s death. He was charged with misconduct, second-degree assault and reckless endangerment for putting Gray in harm’s way.

At the same time, the verdict will have significance if only because an innocent finding could build tension for the later cases.

In general, though, time has been on our side.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR. His column runs Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.