BALTIMORE — A judge ruled Wednesday that the six officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man who was allegedly killed by police in April, will have individual trials and that State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby will not be forced to withdraw from the case.
Gray, a 25-year-old resident of the impoverished west side of the city, died on April 20 of a catastrophic injury he suffered while in police custody. His death sparked protests against police brutality, which in turn provided cover for rioters to take advantage of the disorder and loot several stores and set fire to more than a hundred cars.
The unrest came to an end on May 1, when Mosby announced her intention to charge the six officers involved in Gray's fatal arrest with crimes ranging from misconduct in office to murder. All six officers pleaded not guilty.
Wednesday's were the first two hearings in the case. Judge Barry Williams listened to debates on whether the court should dismiss the charges against the officers on the grounds that Mosby compromised their chances for a fair trial and on whether the officers should be tried together or separately.
During the first hearing, the defense argued that Mosby's statements on May 1 prejudiced potential jurors against the defendants, in an alleged violation of ethics rules. They also argued that several lawyers in Mosby's office had become potential witnesses in the case by conducting a parallel investigation into the facts of Gray's death, a situation that the defense claimed should disqualify them from conducting the prosecution.
Andrew Graham, an attorney for one of the accused officers, took particular issue with Mosby's use of the phrase "No justice, no peace," a chant used by both peaceful protesters and rioters during the unrest, saying that the clear implication of Mosby's words were that "if [the people] want peace in Baltimore, they have to convict the officers."
"This was not an impartial, dispassionate discussion of a case," Graham said of the May 1 press conference. "This was a motivational speech."
For their part, Mosby's team argued that her statements during the press conference came from the public record and did not constitute an invitation to convict the officers. They also argued that there are legal precedents for prosecutors to participate in criminal investigations without having to withdraw from the case.
"Forests have been destroyed by the amount of paper the defendants have used to talk about these issues, but they are trial issues," said Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow.
After an hourlong hearing in which he often asked tough questions of both sides, Judge Barry Williams decided to side with Mosby, but not without criticizing some of her actions.
Williams told the court that he was "troubled" by some of the statements that Mosby made on May 1 — particularly when she told reporters that some of the officers had made statements while others hadn't — but added that her comments had not compromised the defendants' right to a fair trial. He also said he had no power to decide whether Mosby had broken the ethics rules that govern the conduct of Maryland lawyers, a matter that falls under the jurisdiction of the state's grievance commission.
When Schatzow, Mosby's deputy, tried to argue that the prosecutor's conference had helped "calm" the city after the unrest, Williams interrupted him.
"It isn't the job of the prosecutor to calm the city," the judge said. "It's the job of the prosecutor to prosecute. That's a statement, not a question."
The judge also said the defense's suggestions that Mosby's marriage to a councilman whose district was damaged during the riots disqualified her from trying the officers was "condescending."
"Do you not think she can think for herself?" the judge asked the defense.
As for the question of whether Mosby and her team became witnesses by investigating the case, Williams said that Maryland state law and the U.S. Constitution support a prosecutor's right and duty to inquire into criminal matters. He said that granting the defense's motion would set a precedent that would essentially prevent elected prosecutors from performing the tasks for which they were elected, and advised the defense to resolve their grievances through cross-examining witnesses during the trial.
After he ruled on the motions, Williams also warned both sides that he would not tolerate the kind of uncivil behavior he said they displayed in some of their motions, reminding them that resorting to "name-calling" is not good lawyerly practice.
Later that afternoon, the two sides argued on whether the officers should be tried as a group or not. The prosecution, led in this hearing by Deputy State's Attorney Janice Bledsoe, asked the judge to have four different trials: one for Officer Caesar Goodson, Officer Edward Nero, and Sergeant Alicia White, and three individual trials for Officer William Porter, Lieutenant Brian Rice, and Officer Garret Miller.
Bledsoe argued that Nero, White, and Goodson had all neglected the same duty of care to ensure Gray was not injured, but to different degrees, which she said explained why the state's attorney charged them with reckless endangerment, manslaughter, and second-degree murder. She said the actions of Nero, who arrested Gray; White, who was the supervisor in charge and allegedly knew Gray needed medical attention; and Goodson, who drove the van where Gray suffered his injury, constituted parts of the same arch and should therefore be tried together.
The defense for all six officers pleaded the court to grant them individual trials, arguing that evidence against some of the officers would not be admissible against others, and that trying cases with such different degrees of culpability together could result in a "transfer of guilt" or a "spillover effect."
"It's really two separate cases," said Marc Zayon, an attorney for Nero, arguing that the actions of the officers who arrested Gray and the ones of those who transported him were independent.
In the end, Williams sided with the defense and denied the motion to join the trials, effectively granting each defendant his or her own trial.
"Because of the way the state has charged this case, evidence against officers Goodson and Nero would be prejudicial to Sgt. White," Williams said.
Before the case can proceed, the court has to decide whether the trials of the officers should be held in Baltimore City or moved to another part of the state. The defense and the prosecution will debate the motion to change venue on Thursday of next week.