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Goodson elects to have bench trial

Officer Caesar Goodson, center, leaves Baltimore City Circuit Court with his lawyer Matthew Fraling on Monday. Goodson, who was driving the transport wagon, faces second-degree murder, manslaughter, assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment charges in the death of Freddie Gray. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

Officer Caesar Goodson, center, leaves Baltimore City Circuit Court on Monday morning with one of his lawyers, Matthew Fraling. Goodson, who was driving the transport wagon, faces second-degree murder, manslaughter, assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment charges in the death of Freddie Gray. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

The driver of the police van that transported Freddie Gray last year has elected to be tried before a judge on charges including second-degree murder.

Officer Caesar Goodson faces the most serious charges of the six defendants and, until recently, appeared to be planning for a jury trial: Jury selection had been scheduled for Tuesday morning in Baltimore City Circuit Court. But Goodson waived his right to be tried by a jury at a hearing Monday morning, and his trial is now scheduled to begin Thursday morning before Judge Barry Williams.

Officer Edward Nero was acquitted of assault and reckless endangerment charges at a bench trial before Williams last month.

“Whether Officer Goodson was thinking of going with a bench trial before Officer Nero’s trial, I think it certainly reinforced his confidence in Judge Williams to apply the specific facts and the law to each individual case,” said Baltimore defense attorney Steven H. Levin, who has been following all of the cases.

In announcing Nero’s acquittal, Williams explained which elements of the crimes prosecutors failed to provide evidence to support.

In light of Williams’ well-reasoned ruling in Nero’s case, Goodson and his attorneys may have elected to avoid a Baltimore jury, which may feel obligated to find Goodson guilty of something, according to Levin.

“You’ll never know what a jury would do but it comes down to the fact that I always thought a Baltimore city jury would be under too much pressure,” he said.

Attorneys for all the defendants have made requests to have the trials removed from Baltimore but Williams has insisted on at least trying to seat an impartial jury in each case.

Baltimore defense attorney Gary S. Bernstein said a lot of thought went into the decision to waive a jury trial, which is ultimately the decision of the defendant.

“That was an incredibly detailed and intense discussion,” said Bernstein, who is not involved in any of the cases.

A bench trial guarantees a verdict – unlike the trial last year of Officer William Porter last year, which ended with a hung jury on all counts – and will move more quickly than a jury trial.

Bernstein said the tone of the trial should be straightforward in front of a judge.

“Vibes mean nothing. This is all business,” he said. “It’s supposed to be with a jury, but we all know that there’s schtick when you’re dealing a jury.”

No speedy trial violations

In addition to second-degree depraved heart murder, Goodson is charged with involuntary manslaughter, negligent manslaughter by vehicle, criminally negligent manslaughter by vehicle, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.

Prosecutors have alleged that Goodson committed criminal acts by not securing Gray with a seat belt when he was in the transport van and not taking him to the hospital when he requested medical care.

At Monday’s hearing, Goodson’s defense succeeded in excluding testimony from an internal affairs investigator that Porter told her Gray said he couldn’t breathe at one of the van’s stops. Porter denied hearing Gray’s statement and telling Det. Syreeta Teel about a statement at his trial last year.

Porter is expected to testify at Goodson’s trial but Teel cannot testify about the alleged statement and Porter cannot be impeached with it because it is hearsay. Though admissible at Porter’s own trial because he was a party opponent, the exception does not apply in Goodson’s trial, Williams ruled.

The statement must also be redacted from the report of the medical examiner who relied on it, in part, to form her opinion about the cause and manner of Gray’s death, according to Williams. Other statements included in the report are admissible only for the purpose of evaluating her conclusions.

Williams also denied Goodson’s motion to dismiss the indictment due to violations of his right to a speedy trial. Goodson has been suspended without pay since May 1, 2015, but Williams said neither of the two postponements was unreasonable and did not prejudice his case.

Goodson is represented by Andrew Jay Graham, Amy E. Askew and Justin A. Redd of Kramon & Graham P.A. in Baltimore and Matthew B. Fraling III of Harris Jones & Malone LLC in Baltimore.