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‘We simply don’t know what happened on April 12’

Prosecutors’ theory on Freddie Gray’s fatal injury attacked by defense, rejected by judge

Lawyers for Baltimore police officers charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray leave Baltimore City Circuit Court on Wednesday morning after prosecutors announced they were dropping charges against three officers awaiting trials. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Lawyers for Baltimore police officers charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray leave Baltimore City Circuit Court on Wednesday morning after prosecutors announced they were dropping charges against three officers awaiting trials. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

With acquittals mounting and a judge rejecting their legal theories, Baltimore prosecutors on Wednesday dismissed charges against the three remaining officers charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray Wednesday.

Baltimore City Circuit Judge Barry Williams has delivered three verdicts since May explaining his reasons for acquitting one of the arresting officers, the driver of the police transport van and the most senior officer at the scene.

At a news conference Wednesday, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said she stands by the decision to bring the charges. But when faced with the “dismal likelihood of conviction” going forward, she decided to dismiss the cases against Officers Garrett Miller and Officer William Porter and Sgt. Alicia White.

Officer Edward Nero, Officer Caesar Goodson and Lt. Brian Rice were acquitted at bench trials in front of Williams; a pretrial hearing in Miller’s case had been scheduled for Wednesday.

“As a mother, the decision not to proceed on these remaining trials is agonizing,” Mosby said. “The judge has made it clear he does not agree with the state’s theory.”

That theory alleged Gray was chased down, detained and arrested April 12, 2015 without probable cause. He was then loaded into a police van in handcuffs. After growing concerned about the crowd forming around them, police moved the van a short distance and took Gray back out, placing him in shackles and temporary handcuffs and placing him back in the van, face-down on the floor. He was never seat-belted.

The van made several stops, including one where Goodson and Porter checked on Gray, before ending up at the Western District station where Gray was found unresponsive and an ambulance was called.

Defense attorneys in each case argued their clients were reasonable in not using a seat belt because Gray was combative and not seeking medical attention because there were no outward signs of trauma. They also contended it was not foreseeable that Gray would sustain any serious injury when he was placed in the van.

Prosecutors had problems establishing the requisite level of knowledge for the officers, and when they called them to testify against each other they often provided more useful testimony for the defense, according to former prosecutor Warren S. Alperstein, who observed the trials.

Unclear evidence

With dueling medical experts on each side disagreeing about when and how Gray’s spinal cord injury occurred, many things about the case remain unclear, according to University of Baltimore School of Law professor David Jaros, who also observed the trials.

“I sat through a number of these cases and I didn’t come out confident that I knew what happened… that I could say with any degree of confidence that a crime had or had not occurred,” he said. “We simply don’t know what happened on April 12.”

The evidence did not provide a clear picture, Jaros said, and just having a healthy 25-year-old man enter a police van and a severely injured person exit was not enough to prove a crime.

“Everybody wanted to find out what happened to Freddie Gray,” said Ivan Bates, an attorney for White, at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “The Baltimore City Police, they did the investigation and they said it was an accident. The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office had an opportunity to do an in-depth investigation, and they did not. It is the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office that has denied justice to the Gray family and denied justice to these officers.”

Prosecutors also were repeatedly admonished for discovery violations, from failing to disclose exculpatory evidence to delivering thousands of pages of documents on the eve of one of the trials.

“I do not believe any strategic decision or discovery error affected these cases,” Jaros said, adding mistakes in such highly-publicized cases showed flaws in the system.

‘The perfect judge’

Williams, with his background as a city prosecutor and Department of Justice prosecutor who investigated police-involved shootings, was the most qualified judge to oversee the cases, according to Alperstein.

“Judge Williams delivered three eloquent, well-reasoned decisions in very specific detail explaining his verdict,” he said. “It’s hard to question anything Judge Williams did when the bottom line is he delivered those methodical opinions.”

Mosby was critical of Williams on Wednesday for his harsh view of the state’s case but Alperstein said it was prosecutors who failed to prove a rough ride as alleged and committed a slew of discovery violations.

“She blames the state’s failure to convict any of these officers on Judge Williams and that is very unusual for an elected prosecutor to take that tack,” he said. “You almost always hear prosecutors who fail to convict, even in high profile cases, make conciliatory comments about respecting the court’s decision.”

Williams demonstrated early on that he would not give either side an advantage and fairly ruled on voluminous pretrial motions, according to Jaros.

“In this particular case, I think we found, perhaps, the perfect judge,” he said.