WASHINGTON -- Before criminal proceedings began for the six officers charged in his death, a $6.4 million wrongful-death settlement -- one of the largest in police brutality cases in recent years -- was awarded to the family of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who died after sustaining a spinal injury in police custody in April.
This is uncommon in high-profile cases. People immediately wondered if the settlement might suggest to the jury pool that the city of Baltimore was essentially admitting the officers' guilt.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said earlier this month that city officials' decision to settle the civil claim prior to any decision in the criminal cases was "unusual," but emphasized that it "should not be interpreted as a judgment" on the officers.
Legal experts think potential jurors might still take away that message. The experts suggest that awarding the funds so soon may have helped taint the jury pool, which could ultimately lead the judge to move the trials out of Baltimore. The settlement was announced just a day before the judge decided the trials would remain in the city for now.
"The settlement does help the defense's argument that it will be difficult to find a fair and impartial jury in Baltimore," Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University and a former public defender, told The Huffington Post. "Even though the settlement does not constitute an admission of guilt, it does signal that the city did not believe it had a strong defense."
"It is fair to say that some, perhaps many, citizens will interpret it as a sign of the city's - and, by extension, the officers' -- wrongdoing," he added.
Usually, financial settlements in such matters are reached after the criminal proceedings or after the grand jury's decision to not indict the officers. For instance, New York City awarded $5.9 million in July to the family of Eric Garner, who was captured on video as an officer held him in a chokehold that led to his death last year. The grand jury had declined to indict the officer in December 2014. A similar sequence played out for the family of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old with a toy gun who was fatally shot on sight by a Cleveland officer. The family of Rekia Boyd did receive a wrongful-death settlement before a judge acquitted the Chicago police officer who had killed her in 2012.
"Certainly a civil settlement could affect a prospective juror's ability to be fair and impartial," said Doug Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland and a former public defender. But he added that it's an issue to be handled in jury selection. "By itself, it's certainly not a reason to conclude that a jury pool has been tainted," he said.
Colbert suggested that awarding the settlement before the criminal proceedings "really cuts both ways" in terms of influencing potential jurors for or against the officers.
"The people who might see a settlement as admitting liability, as an admission of the officers' guilt, would be closely questioned" during jury selection, he said.
On the other hand, Colbert said, "other prospective jurors might see settlements as reason not to find the officers guilty. They might say $6.4 million is sufficient justice and give the benefit of doubt to police defendants."
The mayor has argued that the settlement is nothing more than Charm City moving forward.
"The focus should be on this trial, on the criminal cases, and we've put the civil part of it behind us," Rawlings-Blake told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell last week. "It was important for me that we focus on the work that we're doing with the Department of Justice," which is currently investigating Baltimore police tactics.
"We want to focus on that, reforming the police department, improving the relationship between the community and the police. And I didn't think it would be helped by having a protracted federal case," she added.
Baltimore's police union has spoken out against the settlement. The news "threatens to interrupt any progress made toward restoring the relationship" between cops and the city government, Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police, told CNN.
Baltimore has paid out around $5.7 million in police brutality cases since 2011, according to a 2014 Sun analysis. Out of 317 lawsuits filed against the city's police department -- including complaints of assaults, false arrests and false imprisonment -- over 100 of them resulted in payouts.
Language has been adjusted to clarify what Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said about the message of the wrongful-death settlement for the officers' trials.