Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Convicting police is notoriously difficult. But even acquittals may expose changes that need to come in Baltimore.
BALTIMORE—Barry G. Williams, the Baltimore City Circuit Court judge presiding over the trials of six police officers accused in the death of Freddie Gray, acquitted Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. on all charges against him Thursday. Goodson’s charges were the most serious of any brought against the officers, including second-degree depraved-heart murder.
This was the trial that Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby needed to win to justify the aggressive slate of indictments she brought against the officers. Instead, Goodson’s acquittal raised that prospect that no convictions would come. While trials of three more police officers remain, critics and analysts who have questioned Mosby’s approach all along may have come to a verdict of their own.
“Judge Williams repeatedly grilled the state regarding this ‘rough ride’ theory that the state had promised in its opening argument,” says Warren Alperstein, a Baltimore attorney and analyst. A “rough ride,” also known as a “nickel ride” in Philadelphia and a “joyride” in Chicago, is a vehicular form of police brutality. Prosecutors accused Goodson and other officers of handcuffing Gray and placing him in the back of a police van with a deliberate intent to harm him by not securing him with a seatbelt.
“Ultimately, Judge Williams cleared that up today, making it abundantly obvious that he didn’t buy the state’s argument that it was a rough ride given to Freddie Gray,” Alperstein says.
From the start, the burden of proof was high for the state. Convicting Goodson on second-degree murder—or even on lesser charges, such as second-degree assault or reckless endangerment—required the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt both the cause of death and the mental state of the accused. Police officers are rarely indicted on allegations of police misconduct, and are almost never convicted, making Mosby’s job that much harder.
Outside the district courthouse on Thursday, amid chants of “Illegitimate!” from protesters representing the Revolutionary Communist Party, people who had gathered to hear the decision discussed the case in frustrated terms. Some said that the acquittal came as no surprise, but that they nevertheless approved how Mosby approached the case.
“Reasonable people can disagree with the judge’s reasoning and verdict, because there was substantial evidence produced on many of the charges that could warrant a conviction,” says Douglas Colbert, a professor of law at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law. “People have their own ideas about what a rough ride is. I thought the prosecutors spelled it out. It’s not driving 100 miles an hour like a maniac.”
“Anybody who has been locked up and been in a van [knows] a rough ride could be half a block. A rough ride could be 30 miles an hour,” says Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore City Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “No one’s in there but you, and there’s no seat belt, you get bruised up. Freddie didn’t just get bruised up—he died.”
Still another hurdle for the prosecution, beyond proving the circumstances and motive behind the accusation, was the nature of the bench trial itself. Criminal defendants in Maryland have the option to have their case heard by a judge instead of by a jury of their peers; Goodson exercised this right. Colbert, who describes Judge Williams as both knowledgable and experienced, also says that a high-profile bench trial puts an enormous strain on a judge.
“The healthier process for a community wanting to accept a verdict would have been for 12 people of the community to have heard the evidence, discuss it, deliberate, and then return a verdict that they feel represents the values of that community,” Colbert says. “I happen to think that if this case were decided by a jury, that at least some, if not all of the jurors, would have come to a different conclusion on some of the charges.”
A bench trial also places a certain strain on a community. (Protesters outside the courthouse vocally greeted Judge Williams’s verdict as part of the same law-enforcement system that allegedly killed Freddie Gray.) Hill-Aston says that a jury of Goodson’s peers might have reached a conviction, as their evaluation of Gray’s case was likely to be more emotional and less technical. But Alperstein says that Mosby’s failure to persuade Judge Williams was glaring.
“During closing arguments, Judge Williams really took the state to task for its failure to prove that there were obvious signs [of medical distress] exhibited by Freddie Gray during that transport,” Alperstein says. “That was confirmed today when Judge Williams said there were no outward signs of medical distress prior to reaching the Western District—that’s stop number 6.”
The odds were against Mosby reaching a conviction under any circumstances. Those odds are steeper now. “Given that Goodson was the driver of the wagon, that he was, on paper, the most responsible to secure Freddie Gray and seek medical assistance, I think it causes real problems for the prosecution as it relates to the remaining officers,” Alperstein says.
The case against Officer William Porter resulted in a jury mistrial in December, while Judge Williams acquitted Officer Edward Nero on four charges in May.* Convictions on lesser charges could still happen, but even if the next trials result in acquittals, Colbert and Hill-Aston see value in bringing them forward. So does Tawanda Jones, a Baltimore resident whose brother, Tyrone West, was killed by police in 2013.
“We never saw this happen before right here in Baltimore city,” Jones says. “We never saw a prosecutor actually go after cops and charge them. But then it seems like it’s no different, because [the charges are] just getting dropped off. I have no hope at all that the other officers are going to be [convicted].”
“We have a culture of both protecting police, not investigating police conduct, not having public trials. And that’s what’s so different about the Baltimore prosecution,” Colbert says. “The system is healthy when someone follows the evidence and brings charges that are merited, and then allows the public to listen in to how the decision-maker reaches a verdict.”
“None of us would be standing here having this bold discussion ... with Freddie Gray having died if the state’s attorney had not brought this to the forefront and brought this to court in the first place,” Hill-Aston says. “We have to be satisfied. That’s a victory right there.”
*Correction: This post originally described Officer Edward Nero’s trial as a jury trial. It was a bench trial.