Baltimore police officer Caesar Goodson, Jr. was found not guilty Thursday of all charges, including second-degree depraved-heart murder in the death of Freddie Gray.
Judge Barry Williams concluded that prosecutors didn't prove that the 46-year-old Goodson, who drove the van that transported Gray to central booking, intentionally gave him a “rough ride” resulting in his death from spinal injuries sustained while he was in custody. It was a bench trial, meaning there was no jury in the case.
In delivering his verdict Thursday, Williams said that the prosecution presented no evidence of animosity directed at Gray by Goodson, and failed to prove that he intended anything bad to happen to him.
On the van driver's failure to secure Gray with a seatbelt, the judge called that decision a "mistake" and "bad judgment."
Gray was arrested on April 12, 2015 in the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore. After he was taken into custody, he was shackled and loaded into a police van. The van made several stops on its way to the Western District station, where Gray was found unresponsive. His neck was broken and his spinal cord was compressed and he died a week later, according to a medical examiner’s report.
Williams said he concluded that because it "manifested itself internally" it would be implausible to expect that the average person without medical training would know how catastrophic Gray's injury was.
Goodson is the third of six officer to face a trial in the case — none have been found guilty. Six officers in total are facing charges. Goodson faced the most serious charge in the case of second-degree “depraved heart” murder.
During the trial, prosecutors argued that Goodson was culpable in Gray's death because he knew Gray was shackled in the back of the police wagon but not seatbelted — and at one point during the trip Goodson ran a stop sign, made a wide right turn, then an abrupt stop.
Prosecutor Jan Bledsoe argued that Gray was injured sometime between the second and fourth stop and that he asked for medical attention but Goodson ignored him.
“The intent is to bang him around,” Asst. State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow said during the state’s closing statement. “The consequences to the prisoner were worse than what he anticipated.”
Goodson’s lawyer Matthew Fraling argued that Gray put himself in jeopardy.
“Mr. Gray created a high degree of risk by removing himself from the prone position in which he had been placed to secure his transport,” Fraling said during his closing.
He said Officer Goodson was justified in not putting a seatbelt on Gray because he had been “combative.”
During their opening statement, prosecutors introduced the concept of a “rough ride” where police intentionally drive erratically to inflict injury.
“He was injured because he got a rough ride,” Michael Schatzow, a prosecutor, said during opening statements, adding, “There was no good reason for the officer to repeatedly fail to seatbelt Mr. Gray except to bounce him around.”
One witness for the prosecution, Detective Michael Boyd, testified that he had not observed the van make any abrupt stops or turns.
Officer William Porter, whose own trial resulted in a hung jury, was called to take the stand against Goodson. Asked if he had the opportunity to seatbelt Freddie Gray, Porter responded, “I guess so.”
Porter also said that when he asked Gray at the scene of the arrest if he wanted medical attention he said yes, and that he suggested that Goodson take Gray to the hospital instead of central booking.
One point in the trial — indicating that the judge was not totally sold on the state’s theory that Goodson intentionally drove erratically to harm Gray — came when the defense moved to dismiss the case claiming that the prosecution had not presented enough evidence to prove that Goodson gave Gray a “rough ride. At that point, the judge asked Schatzow to go into detail on how the State had proven the charges against Goodson.
In his response, Schatzow focused not on the driving, but on the failure to buckle his seatbelt “five times” while he was in the van. The judge then asked if the State was acknowledging that it had not presented enough evidence to prove its rough ride theory.
“The No. 1 piece of evidence is the fact that the man suffered a broken neck, and it killed him,” said Mr. Schatzow, adding that the other evidence made it possible to infer that a “rough ride” occurred.
The judge did not dismiss the case, but said it was a “close call.”
On Thursday, in discussing the concept of "rough ride," Williams called it an " "inflammatory term" that is "not to be taken lightly."
In a statement released after the verdict, the National Fraternal Order of Police said,
"We knew from the beginning that Officer Goodson was innocent and wrongly charged with these crimes. The outcome of today's trial just proves that Officer Goodson did everything by the book despite the false charges against him."
Goodson still faces an administrative review by the Baltimore Police Department.
Lieutenant Brian Rice is the next officer in the Freddie Gray case to face trial, which is scheduled to begin on July 5.