BALTIMORE — Billy Murphy, the prominent attorney who represents the family of Freddie Gray, said Wednesday that the announcement of the $6.4 million settlement awarded to his clients by the city of Baltimore was intended to have a "calming effect" on the eve of a contentious hearing.
"The Gray family and the city both have a vital interest in preventing violence," Murphy told reporters during a press conference at his offices in downtown Baltimore.
Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died on April 19 after suffering a catastrophic spine injury while aboard a police van. His death inspired widespread protests against police brutality and triggered riots that left several stores looted and over 100 cars burned.
The unrest subsided on May 1, when State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced her intention to charge six Baltimore police officers involved in Gray's death with crimes ranging from murder to misconduct in office. All of the officers pleaded not guilty.
The $6.4 million settlement — which the government of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake granted without any litigation — was first announced on Tuesday, just two days before a contentious hearing in which Judge Barry Williams of the Baltimore Circuit Court is expected to rule on the six officers' petition to move their trials out of the city.
Lawyers for the officers have argued in court filings that the amount of publicity surrounding the case would prevent their clients from having a fair trial in Baltimore, but many in the city are worried that moving the trials out of the city could again ignite violence.
Some members of Baltimore's legal community told BuzzFeed News that Murphy's statements on the timing of the settlement were not surprising.
"Everybody knows what's going on — they are trying to buy off the protest movement," said Josh Insley, an attorney who has represented clients in civil litigation related to alleged police brutality. "We are not going to get six convictions, so if you start this narrative now that you are treating it as an accident, as a civil negligence case, you suck some air out of the protests."
The $6.4 million settlement is higher than the one awarded to the family of Eric Garner, a black man who died on July 17 at the hands of New York police. New York has a yearly budget of roughly $75 billion. Baltimore, by contrast, has a budget of approximately $2.5 billion.
In the past, Insley said, the city repeatedly stated it had a policy of capping settlements for police brutality at $200,000. The quantity awarded to the Gray family exceeds the combined total given to the plaintiffs of 120 successful lawsuits filed against the police department since 2011, the Baltimore Sun reported.
"The settlement renders that number meaningless," Insley said of the city's $200,000 cap. "They really established a new precedent for examining this matter on a case-by-case basis, but the police department is still negotiating with me as if the cap was still in effect. And they said this yesterday, that there is still a cap.”
Asked at the press conference whether the settlement would create a new precedent for higher awards, Murphy said a new pilot program that will require some officers with the Baltimore Police Department to wear body cameras would ensure only cases with merit are settled.
Murphy insisted that the $6.4 million civil settlement — which was mediated by Alexander Williams, a retired federal judge — had no bearing on the criminal case against the six officers. The agreement between the city and the Gray family does not imply an admission of guilt, or even a statement on the facts of the case.
The Gray family's attorney also said he saw no need to move the case to another jurisdiction.
“The assumption in this debate is that we cannot find 12 people who cannot say they can decide the case based on the evidence presented and nothing else," he told reporters. "And I think more of the city than that.”
Murphy declined to say whether his team had been given access to the officers' statements or to other evidence in the criminal case. He also declined to say what percentage of the settlement had gone to his fees. Civil attorneys in Baltimore typically charge their clients between 33% and 40% of the award.