The defense for Officer Caesar Goodson, the driver of the police van that transported Freddie Gray last year, struggled with some of its witnesses but still made points essential to their case before resting Friday, according to experts.
Goodson is charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter, assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. Closing arguments are scheduled for Monday at 10 a.m.
Goodson’s defense team called a handful of witnesses before resting, but some left the stand without delivering significant evidence.
Thursday, a fellow police van driver was prohibited from testifying about the danger of getting into the van to seat belt a prisoner or about Goodson’s reputation as a driver by objections from the state, which were sustained by Baltimore City Circuit judge Barry Williams. Any discussions about the relevance and admissibility of evidence occurred in private bench conferences, leaving Williams’ reasons for his rulings unclear.
Friday morning, the defense called a training officer to testify that Goodson didn’t receive in-service training about using seat belts. However, her testimony was struck after she could not confirm she personally taught Goodson.
Despite these issues, the defense was able to make significant points when cross-examining state witnesses and through their experts, according to Warren S. Alperstein, a former city prosecutor who has been following the case.
Proof of rough ride
A key issue in closing arguments should be whether the prosecution proved the allegation made by Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow in opening statements: that Gray received a “rough ride” in the back of the van.
“I suspect the defense will really focus [in closing] on the state’s failure to prove that Officer Goodson gave Freddie Gray a rough ride,” Alperstein said.
Goodson, they argued, was responsible for Gray’s well-being and was aware of the dangers of not using a seat belt and not taking a prisoner to the hospital when it was requested.
Neill Franklin, a former Maryland State Police trooper and training coordinator for Baltimore Police, testified Wednesday that Goodson had custody of Gray and was responsible for his safety.
Being restrained in leg shackles, unsecured by a seat belt, and sudden starts, stops and turns by the driver can contribute to a rough ride, according to Franklin. But on cross examination he testified that he saw no evidence of erratic driving on the materials he reviewed from the day of Gray’s arrest.
“The defense was able to score a number of significant points,” Alperstein said. “The state has invested so much time in this rough ride theory.”
One of those points was the testimony of Donta Allen who was picked up after Gray. Allen refused to provide testimony on the stand Thursday but read portions of his statement to police on the day of the incident when he said he heard banging from Gray’s compartment.
Prosecutors also alleged Goodson should have taken Gray to the hospital after Officer William Porter told him Gray was asking for medical assistance. Porter testified Gray said he wanted to go to the hospital “when prompted.”
“I don’t think the state was able to prove through any of its witnesses that when Goodson was operating the wagon he was ever aware that Freddie Gray was actually in need of medical attention,” Alperstein said. “The state has to prove that Goodson was aware that Freddie Gray needed medical attention. Simply wanting to go to the hospital does not mean he needs medical attention.”
The discussion between Porter and Goodson is important for the state to show Goodson had knowledge of Gray’s medical condition, according to University of Baltimore School of Law professor David Jaros, but Goodson could have merely made a mistake in not seeking medical care, which alone would not be criminal.
“Unless he’s trying to hurt Mr. Gray or (is) aware of the risk he’s putting Mr. Gray in and ignoring it … I don’t think you’ve satisfied the elements of the crime,” Jaros said.
Prosecutors must prove Goodson acted with gross negligence to prove manslaughter, Jaros said, which requires an awareness of the risk.
“I am persuaded by the state’s case that there was clear negligence here and that a reasonable person would have taken him to the hospital, but that’s not a crime, that’s $6.4 million,” Jaros said, referencing the civil settlement Gray’s family reached with the city last year.