Baltimore Police Department Officer Edward Nero was found not guilty Monday in a criminal trial stemming from actions he took during the arrest of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man who died last year after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody.
Nero, 30, who requested a bench trial decided by a judge instead of a jury trial, was one of the bicycle officers who pursued Gray through the Gilmor Homes public housing project in West Baltimore on April 12, 2015. He was accused of recklessly endangering Gray by failing to secure him in the back of a police van with a seat belt. He pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and two counts of official misconduct.
On Monday, Judge Barry Williams delivered his verdict in the second of six trials in the Gray case. Nero's trial is the first case to end in a verdict — the trial of Officer William Porter ended in a mistrial last year.
Prosecutors argued that it was Nero's duty to make sure Gray was seat belted and secure in the back of the van while he was being taken into custody. Nero's defense countered that the responsibility of securing Gray lied with the van driver, Officer Caesar Goodson.
Goodson faces a second-degree murder charge, the most serious accusation of all the six police officers charged in the case. His trial is scheduled to start in June.
One of the key witnesses in the case, Officer Garrett Miller, who also faces charges in Gray's arrest, was ordered to testify at Nero's trial under immunity. Called by the prosecution, Miller testified that he caught Gray, placed him in handcuffs, and moved him while they waited for the van. When the van arrived, Nero and Lt. Brian Rice placed Gray in the van.
Defense attorney Marc Zayon argued during his closing that failure to seat belt Gray was an "act of omission," adding that the state didn't show Nero had duty to do it.
Zayon added that "intervening acts" like Gray standing up the van driver's driving played a role in Gray being hurt.
The police's internal investigation is ongoing, and Nero will remain in an administrative role until it's over.
After the verdict was handed down, Zayon released a statement calling for the Baltimore State's Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, to drop the charges against the remaining five officers
"Officer Edward Nero, his wife and family are elated that this nightmare is finally over. The State's Attorney for Baltimore City rushed to charge him, as well as the other five officers, completely disregarding the facts of the case and applicable law. Officer Nero is appreciative of the reasoned judgment that Judge Barry Williams applied in his ruling. his hope is that the State's Attorney will reevaluate the remaining five Officer's cases and dismiss their charges. Like Officer Nero, these Officers have done nothing wrong. Officer Nero remains a proud member of the Baltimore Police Department and looks forward to serving the City and the people of Baltimore."
After learning the verdict, Nero's father Edward Nero, Sr. spoke to WJZ. Asked if he felt justice was served in the case, Nero, Sr. said, "Justice for the police officers, yes."
Nero, Sr. added that if his son had been found guilty, "I believe many officers would have been hesitant to do the right thing when it came time to deal with crime because they would be afraid to be prosecuted."
In anticipation of possible protests surrounding the verdict, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake tweeted Monday morning asking that everyone respect the judge's decision.
Rawlings-Blake said in a statment after the verdict, "This is our American system of justice and police officers must be afforded the same justice system as every other citizen in this city, state, and country."
Nero's union president released a statement after the verdict:
Ebonie Riley, the Washington DC Bureau Chief of the National Action Network, said:
"We are disappointed in the decision of the court but unfortunately not surprised. As we have seen throughout the years, when officers opt for a trial by judge rather than by a jury, acquittal is the result. We have been through this with Sean Bell and far too many other cases in the past. This is exactly the reason we are calling for lowering the bar for federal prosecution, and greater involvement of the federal government in cases like this. In federal court, a jury trial cannot be waived without the consent of the prosecution – and we believe that is a fairer, more just process. We continue to stand with the Gray family as they fight for justice for their son."
And the NAACP said:
"In spite of today's verdict, we await justice for Freddie Gray. We respect the legal process and pray that the family of Freddie Gray will receive justice for his tragic death as we continue to call on systemic reforms in municipal and state police departments across the country.
As we continue to watch the legal process unfold and as the trials of other officers commence, we urge the community to let their voices be heard in nonviolent protest as we seek justice for a violent death."
National Fraternal Order of Police President Chuck Canterbury said:
"We knew from the beginning that Officer Nero was innocent and wrongly charged with these crimes. The outcome of today's trial just proves that Officer Nero did everything by the book despite the false charges against him. It is terrible that in our country today that law enforcement officers doing their job the right way can still be falsely accused of misconduct even though the facts were there from the very beginning that no misconduct occurred."