The judge overseeing the emotionally charged case of a young black man who died in police custody is a former federal prosecutor who used to put dirty police officers on trial.
Friends and colleagues describe Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams, an African-American, as an even-handed judge who has a sense of humor but doesn’t tolerate any courtroom grandstanding. People on both sides of the Freddie Gray case agree he is the best judge for the job.
Williams will decide perhaps the most important trial in the Gray case. Officer Caesar Goodson faces a second-degree murder charge in the death of Gray, whose neck was broken in the back of a police wagon last spring. Goodson waived his right to a jury in favor of placing his fate in Williams’ hands. His trial begins Thursday.
Similarly, Officer Edward Nero, who faced assault and other charges in Gray’s death, opted for a bench trial. Williams acquitted Nero of all charges last month.
Williams’ verdict in the Nero trial was so narrowly focused it gave little indication of how he might rule for the van officer, who prosecutors say is the most culpable for Gray’s death.
Gray died April 19, 2015. His death sparked protests and riots across the city, and he joined a growing list of young black men who died after encounters with police officers.
Critics say the city’s top prosecutor Marilyn Mosby was too hasty when she brought charges against six officers last year, but as the trials moved through the system, Williams’ mentors, advisers and colleagues unanimously agree that there’s nobody more prepared to handle a case with such weighty implications.
“I’ve been trying to think, could I imagine anyone else in terms of their career path who would have been better prepared for this case?” said Larry Gibson, a longtime professor at the University of Maryland Francis Carey Law Center who once taught Williams. “I can’t.”
Williams, 53, was appointed associate judge in Baltimore in 2005 and was later elected to keep his seat. Before that, he worked as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, where he prosecuted police misconduct cases before he became special litigation counsel there.
Among his cases was the trial for Washington police officer Lawrence Holland, who was accused of severely beating a man at a traffic stop. Holland eventually pleaded guilty.
Prior to the Justice Department, Williams worked in Baltimore, as an assistant state’s attorney specializing in street crime.
Each morning, Williams enters his courtroom clutching an oversized tea cup and bids the attorneys and those sitting in the gallery good morning. Some days he won’t begin the proceedings until he gets a response back, in unison. He is stern and focused, but sometimes trades light barbs with attorneys during motions hearings.
During the November trial of Officer William Porter, which ended in a hung jury, Williams placed small bowls full of candy in front of each juror, and obliged a request during deliberations for a refill.
Those who have worked alongside him and appeared before him in court say he is tremendously fair, bearing no clear preference for prosecutors or defense attorneys.
“His decisions are based on the law and not emotion, and I wouldn’t say that about every judge,” said attorney Warren Alperstein, who has watched the officers’ trials. “He’s neither considered defense- nor state-oriented. And if you’re stepping out of bounds he’ll let you know very, very quickly.”
During closing arguments in Nero’s trial, Williams repeatedly questioned Deputy State’s Attorney Jan Bledsoe about the state’s theory, asking over and over whether prosecutors were implying that officers should be charged with crimes for stopping people without probable cause.
Months before, at Porter’s trial, Williams threatened to hold Porter’s defense attorney Joe Murtha in contempt of court while he was cross-examining Dr. Carol Allan, the assistant medical examiner who prepared Gray’s autopsy report.
Williams’ ability to keep each of the cases separate is clear in his ruling acquitting Nero. After determining that Nero wasn’t directly involved in Gray’s arrest, Williams said he wouldn’t address whether or not policemen could or should be prosecuted for stopping people without probable cause.
Not all of his decisions are without controversy.
Williams has taken a strong stance against requests for more public access to information, issuing a sweeping gag order preventing not only defendants but also their attorneys and witnesses from speaking publicly until all of the cases are finished. He also asked jurors in the Porter trial not to speak to reporters about their deliberation process.
Williams also made headlines when he ruled that Porter, who is currently pending retrial, must testify against some of his colleagues.
But even his most contentious decisions come from a place of legal scholarship; even his decision to acquit Nero was largely viewed as fair by those firmly planted in Gray’s camp. Billy Murphy, the Gray family attorney, called it “well thought out and reasonable under the circumstance.”
“I commend him for being a credit to his bench because there was all kinds of pressure, enormous pressure, for him to go in the other direction,” he said, “and he showed tremendous courage in ruling against public opinion.”