BALTIMORE (CN) - The first of the cases against six Baltimore police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray went to the jury on Monday afternoon, after closing arguments painted dueling portraits of the case.
Gray, 25, died a week after suffering a catastrophic spinal cord injury during transportation in a police van. Police say Gray was in possession of an illegal knife when he was arrested. Rioting erupted in western sections of the city following Gray's funeral on April 27.
"You should consider evidence in the light of your own experience," Judge Barry Williams told the jury during instructions given before the closing arguments in the trial of Baltimore City Police Officer William Porter. Williams also told the jury that, "You are the sole judge of whether or not a witness should be believed."
Porter, the first of six officers charged in connection with Gray's death, pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment.
Monday's closing arguments failed to provide convincing arguments either way, according to Warren Brown, a veteran defense attorney who has been closely following the case.
Brown said that the problem for the prosecution during Porter's trial is that they have been "trying to fit a square peg into a round hole."
The crux of the state's charges is that Porter failed to act as a "reasonable officer," which, according to Brown, the state failed to do.
Brown said that both Porter's own testimony and the testimony of an expert witness, Capt. Justin Reynolds of the Baltimore Police Department, portrayed Porter as an honest, caring officer - which contradicts what the prosecution tried to depict in closing arguments.
Ultimately, "the state failed to show that Officer Porter's action or inaction directly led to the death of Freddie Gray," Brown said.
"How long does it take to click a seat belt or the button on a radio to ask for a medic?" prosecutor Janice Bloodsoe asked the jury in her closing arguments. "Is two, three, four seconds worth a life?"
"It was so simple, any police officer would have gotten a medic in that situation," Bledsoe said. "When Officer Porter failed to call for a medic, when that van door closed on Freddie Gray, that van became his casket on wheels."
Bledsoe borrowed a quote from French writer Voltaire, which she noted was also used in the Hollywood blockbuster "Spiderman," to conclude her closing argument. "With great power comes great responsibility," Bledsoe said.
In his closing arguments, defense attorney Joseph Murtha told jurors the state had "played on your fears and emotions," and pointed out prosecutors hadn't produced a single witness that testified Porter had acted as and "unreasonable officer."
"Speculation and conjecture are not your job," Murtha said. "The state is asking you to make your decision on speculation, and it's not your job to fill in the blanks. There is no evidence that the actions of Officer Porter lead to the death of Freddie Gray. You are making a legal decision, not a moral or philosophical decision."
Murtha also asked the jury to look very closely at the evidence of Dr. Carrol Allan, the assistant medical examiner who classified Gray's death as a homicide. Allan testified last week that she made the determination that Gray's injury occurred sometime before the fourth stop of the 45-minute journey. Murtha said that despite Allan's investigation, the testimonies of multiple witnesses contradicted those findings.
Fellow Baltimore City Police Officer Mark Gladhill testified that he saw Gray after the fourth stop and that Gray was holding his head up and kneeling under his own power, which directly challenges Allan's report.
Murtha also cited the testimony of Reynolds - an expert in police policy and training - who testified last week that Porter not only acted as a reasonable officer, but that he actually went beyond the call of duty in helping Gray off the floor of the wagon at stop four and inquiring if Gray needed a medic or to go to the hospital.
Reynolds said officers have to use discretion as how to implement the general orders, which direct officers to seat-belt prisoners while in transport, when working on the streets. Reynolds also said that sometimes officers have to break with general orders to maintain their own well-being.
Officers have to take their own safety into consideration when they interact with detainees, Reynolds told the court during testimony on Friday.
The general orders became one of the most important pieces of evidence in the case. Just three days prior to Gray's arrest an email was sent to all officers of the Baltimore Police Department with changes made to the policy dealing with using seat belts for detainees during transportation.
The prosecution touted that Porter had failed to abide by the general orders as evidence of a callous disregard for Gray's life, but the defense produced several witnesses that testified that no officers actually seat-belted detainees in the wagons that transported prisoners.
Murtha concluded by telling the jury that "the state failed to provide the evidence or witnesses to prove beyond a doubt that Officer Porter's actions were those of an unreasonable officer."
"Inflaming your passion is not evidence," Murtha said. He told the jury to look at the "cold hard facts that are not presented," which will lead them to a "just decision."
The jury of four black women, three black men, three white women, and two white men began its deliberations around 2:30 on Monday afternoon.
Meanwhile, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake opened an emergency operations center Monday as jurors deliberate the charges against Porter.
In a letter to community leaders, Rawlings-Blake wrote that she has "no doubt" city officials are prepared for anything, but the center opened at 10 a.m. Monday as a precaution. She said the center will help agencies coordinate any necessary response.
The city also is communicating with outside law enforcement agency partners. Last week during a press conference with Baltimore's police chief, Rawlings-Blake said people must respect the jury's decision in Porter's trial.
Following Gray's funeral on April 27, riots in Baltimore's western district led to the calling in of the National Guard and a citywide curfew.
This story was originally published by Courthouse News.
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