The six Baltimore Police Department officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died from a critical injury he sustained while in police custody, will face criminal trials in Baltimore, a judge ruled Thursday.
Circuit Court Judge Barry Glenn Williams determined in a hearing that it was possible for the officers to receive fair trials in Baltimore. All six officers will now face individual trials for the charges brought against them by State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby.
However, the court will still need to decide if an impartial jury can be seated in Baltimore, The Baltimore Sun reported.
Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal cord injury after being taken into custody by Baltimore police on April 12.
The officers' attorneys wanted the trials moved out of the city over concerns that their clients would not receive fair trials there, due to the amount of media coverage Gray’s death received and the impact it could have on jurors.
Since a jury is culled from a cross-section of the community where the trial takes place, the location of a trial can have an effect on its outcome.
"Rural and suburban juries are less likely to connect to the community conditions and more likely to excuse police as having a tough job and doing what is needed," Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told The Huffington Post.
In general, Kenney added, most juries tend to side with the police unless they find the officers' behavior unjustifiable.
"This case could be one of those, depending on the facts," he said.
A change of venue can increase the likelihood that a jury will be impartial, according to Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University. Medwed also noted that if the officers were to be convicted outside of Baltimore, they would not be able to argue on appeal that they had not received a fair trial.
"On the other hand, the people of Baltimore are the victims, along with Freddie Gray, and have a compelling reason to hear the case; they are the injured community," Medwed said.
Outside the courthouse Thursday morning, a smattering of demonstrators carried signs demanding the trial be held in Baltimore.
Williams' ruling on Thursday comes the day after a Baltimore city board approved a $6.4 million settlement in a separate civil case, which Gray's family brought against the city. During a news conference on Wednesday, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the decision to settle is intended to bring "an important measure of closure" to the Gray family, to the community and to the city.
"I again want to extend my most sincere condolences to the family of Mr. Freddie Gray," Rawlings-Blake said.
The mayor acknowledged that the decision to settle the civil claim prior to a decision in the criminal case is "unusual," but emphasized that it is not an indication that the city suspects the officers of wrongdoing.
Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police, called the settlement decision a "ridiculous reaction." He added that it "threatens to interrupt any progress made toward restoring the relationship" between cops and the city government.
The mayor disagreed.
"The city’s decision to settle the civil case should not be interpreted as passing any judgment on guilt or innocence of the officers," Rawlings-Blake said, arguing that the settlement is in the best interests of the city’s taxpayers.
It’s also one of the largest police brutality-related settlements Baltimore has seen in years. According to a Baltimore Sun analysis from last year, the combined amount paid by the city in all police brutality settlements between 2011 and 2014 was roughly $5.7 million.
Kenney argued that while the settlement is not proof of guilt, it is suggestive.
"Clearly, the city had custody of him and he died. By definition, the city has fault," he said. "That doesn’t, however, serve as proof that he was murdered."
Medwed suspects that prospective jurors may improperly infer from the settlement that the city is admitting that the officers did something wrong. In fact, however, it's difficult to reach any conclusion about the decision to settle since, as Rawlings-Blake suggested, it can simply be a matter of city business. Nevertheless, it could affect the point of view of potential jurors.
"It is another thumb on the scale in favor of the defense argument that the [jury] is tainted," Medwed said.
Autopsy reports indicated that Gray sustained a single “high-energy injury,” likely caused by what prosecutors have called a “rough ride” in the back of the police van where Gray was handcuffed and rode without being secured by a seat belt. The injury, according to the autopsy, was likely caused by the van decelerating rapidly. After spending a week in a coma, Gray died on April 19.
While state medical examiners acknowledged that the death fit the “medical and legal definition of an accident,” they still ruled it a homicide due to the police's failure to follow proper safety protocols “through acts of omission."
The Baltimore Police Department admitted in April that Gray did not receive timely medical care after he was arrested and was not buckled into his seat while being transported. Still, many details about what happened to Gray before and after his arrest remain unclear.
Protests erupted in the city following Gray’s funeral on April 27. By May 1, Mosby had announced criminal charges against the six officers involved in Gray’s arrest. A grand jury indicted all six officers later that month.
The officers face a range of charges. Most seriously, Officer Caesar Goodson, who drove the van used to transport Gray, is charged with second-degree depraved-heart murder, as well as manslaughter, two counts of vehicular manslaughter and second-degree assault.
Sgt. Alicia White, Lt. Brian Rice and Officer William Porter face multiple charges including involuntary manslaughter and second-degree assault. Officers Garrett Miller and Edward Nero also face charges of second-degree assault. In addition, all six officers are charged with counts of misconduct in office and reckless endangerment.
Each of the officers has pleaded not guilty.