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Few changes to state’s case as fourth Freddie Gray trial begins

Lt. Brian Rice, one of the six members of the Baltimore Police Department charged in connection to the death of Freddie Gray, arrives at Baltimore City Circuit Court on Thursday morning. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Lt. Brian Rice, one of the six members of the Baltimore Police Department charged in connection to the death of Freddie Gray, arrives at Baltimore City Circuit Court on Thursday morning. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Baltimore prosecutors began the fourth trial for an officer charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray with no new factual allegations but an emphasis on Lt. Brian Rice’s role as a shift supervisor responsible for making decisions and giving orders.

Baltimore City Circuit Judge Barry Williams heard opening statements — and the state began presenting its case Thursday — but not before dropping one of the misconduct in office charges against Rice which pertained to his involvement in Gray’s allegedly illegal detention and arrest.

Rice remains charged with manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.

Rice called out the initial foot chase of Gray on April 12, 2015 and once Gray was caught and detained, Rice “began making a series of determinations” which lead to Gray’s death, Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow said in his opening statement. But defense attorney Chaz Ball characterized Rice’s actions as a “nine-second assessment” of the situation which the state was trying to criminalize.

Rice decided to have Gray taken to Central Booking and Intake rather than the Western District Police Station, to place Gray in shackles and place him on the floor of the transport van, and to not seat belt Gray before stepping out of the van, according to Schatzow.

New General Orders were distributed to Baltimore Police Department officers via email in the days before Gray’s arrest, and Rice was accessing his email during that time, according to Schatzow. A new order required the use of seat belts on prisoners and replaced the previous rule that built in discretion for officer safety.

As a lieutenant, Rice knew about the obligation to use seat belts, with or without discretion, but ignored it, according to Schatzow.

“This defendant is not an inexperienced officer of who was ignorant of the rules that govern his conduct,” he said.

Despite the state’s reliance on Rice’s role as a superior officer to confer greater responsibility, experts ahead of the trial said that argument still brings the same problem the state faced in prior trials: proving the defendants were aware of the risk to Gray when they did not seat belt him.

Ball, of Schlachman, Belsky & Weiner P.A. in Baltimore, said in light of the crowd at the scene of the arrest, Gray’s passive resistance and belligerence in custody and the confined space in the back of the van made for a volatile situation during which Rice acted as a reasonable officer would.

Gray was “at his most combative,” Ball added, at the second stop when the van moved a short distance away from the initial scene to attempt to get away from the crowd. Witnesses said Gray was kicking inside the van, according to Ball. After Gray was placed in shackles and put back inside the van, Rice got out and custody transferred to the driver, Officer Caesar Goodson.

Goodson was acquitted by Williams last month; Officer Edward Nero, who was involved in Gray’s chase and arrest, was acquitted by Williams in May. Rice is the third officer to opt to have a bench trial in front of Williams.

Manner of death

The first prosecution witness Thursday was Dr. Carol Allan, an assistant medical examiner who autopsied Gray’s body and ultimately ruled his death a homicide.

Last month, Detective. Dawnyell Taylor testified that Allan characterized Gray’s death as a “freak accident” at a meeting with investigators before she issued her formal opinion.

Thursday, Allan said that she has always believed Gray’s death was a homicide, in part because he lacked the “extreme force” required to snap his own neck.

“If a seat belt had been used, then the type of injury Mr. Gray sustained would not have occurred,” she testified.

Later, she clarified that her homicide determination “is a definition that has no standing, legally,” and simply means “death at the hands of another.”

The prosecution is scheduled to continue presenting its case Friday morning.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.