A Year After Freddie Gray's Death, Trials Set To Begin (Again) | KUOW News and Information

A Year After Freddie Gray's Death, Trials Set To Begin (Again)

Apr 19, 2016
Originally published on April 20, 2016 1:00 pm

The trials of six Baltimore police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray were supposed to have been over by now. It was a year ago Tuesday that the 25-year-old black man died of a severe neck injury sustained in custody.

His death touched off violent protests, and — in a stunning announcement just days later — criminal charges.

State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby said she had heard protesters' calls for "no justice, no peace."

But so far, there's been one hung jury, lots of legal maneuvering and delays.

Now, the city is bracing as the trials are set to begin again, next month.

"It shows the justice system right now is unjust. For it to basically take a year, it's unsettling," says Marvin Cheatham, who heads a neighborhood association near where Gray lived.

Things are quiet now, Cheatham says. But crime and violence in Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods goes up with the warmer weather, he adds.

Cheatham worries about a repeat of last spring and summer's record-setting spike in homicides. Though a number of cities across the country saw such an uptick, many in Baltimore blamed the police, accusing them of pulling back.

"The morale in the Baltimore city police department is so unbelievably low," says Baltimore attorney Warren Alperstein. He represents many police officers, though none in this case.

Alperstein says officers are worried because some of their colleagues are charged not over Gray's fatal injury, but over his arrest in the first place.

"Officers fear that if they're acting in good faith, they can be prosecuted for false arrest and an assault, even by just putting handcuffs on somebody," Alperstein says.

Whatever the merit of such fears, it's true that at every turn, prosecutors in the Freddie Gray case have doubled down.

After Officer William Porter's trial ended in a hung jury last December, his lawyers said he could not be forced to testify against his co-defendants. With his own re-trial pending, they said he was at risk of incriminating himself.

Prosecutors pushed the matter all the way to Maryland's highest court, and won. A court order compelling Porter to testify while he awaits trial is unprecedented in Maryland. Prosecutors are seeking a similar order against a second officer, Garrett Miller.

"This is a case where the prosecution is vigorously going after a conviction, and going after all of the officers who were involved," says David Jaros, of the University of Baltimore School of Law.

But Jaros says these are still hard cases to prove. The officers aren't accused of killing Gray outright, but of failing to take actions that could have prevented his fatal injury.

Attorney Alperstein says there's also the lingering allegation that State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby acted in haste.

"There's many that would argue that it was a political decision, and it was charged so quickly in an attempt to calm the civil unrest," he says. "That part was successful."

But Jaros wonders how both police and the public will react to the trials, especially if there are no convictions.

"Whether or not the political lesson is, 'Don't take on the police because it hurts your, sort of political career.' Or, 'You know what, the system's no longer tolerating it, people are watching, and this is the way to go,' " he says.

It's not at all clear that prosecutors are getting credit for their aggressive approach among the public.

"I am very skeptical," says Kwame Rose, who's been a high-profile protester since Gray's death. He says the legal delays have only hardened his cynicism about the criminal justice system's treatment of blacks.

"I think it just shows we have to be prepared for the fact that no one will be held accountable by State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby," he says. "So it's up to the community."

If there are no convictions, Rose says, it will be up to the public to keep pushing for justice.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A year ago today, a young black man named Freddie Gray died in Baltimore. He had suffered a fatal neck injury in police custody. His death touched off violent protests. Days later, State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced charges against six police officers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARILYN MOSBY: I heard your call for no justice, no peace. Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man.

SIEGEL: Now the city is bracing as those trials are finally set to begin again next month. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: The trials were supposed to have been over by now. Instead, there's been one hung jury in the case of William Porter last December and lots of legal maneuvering and delay.

MARVIN CHEATHAM: It shows the justice system right now is unjust. For it to basically take a year is unsettling.

LUDDEN: Marvin Cheatham heads a neighborhood association near where Freddie Gray lived.

CHEATHAM: I don't want to say we're on edge 'cause right now things are quiet. Things are quiet. No one's really angered-angered. But the longer this goes on, you going to have the heat of the community going. And right now we're in the spring. Crime and violence in this community goes up.

LUDDEN: Last spring and summer, Baltimore saw a record-setting spike in homicides. Many blamed police for pulling back.

WARREN ALPERSTEIN: The morale in the Baltimore City Police Department is so unbelievably low.

LUDDEN: Baltimore attorney Warren Alperstein represents many police officers though none in this case. He says officers are worried. Some of their colleagues are charged not over Freddie Gray's fatal injury but over his arrest in the first place.

ALPERSTEIN: Officers fear that if they're acting in good faith, they can be prosecuted for a false arrest and an assault even by just putting handcuffs on somebody.

DAVID JAROS: This is a case where the prosecution is vigorously going after a conviction and going after all of the officers who were involved.

LUDDEN: David Jaros is with the University of Baltimore School of Law. He says at every turn, prosecutors have doubled down. After Officer Porter's trial ended in a hung jury, his lawyers said he could not be forced to testify against his co-defendants. With his own retrial pending, they said, he was at risk of incriminating himself. Jaros says prosecutors pushed all the way to Maryland's highest court, and they won.

JAROS: There has been criticism across the country that prosecutors have been reluctant to go after police, and this is not the case in Baltimore.

LUDDEN: But Jaros says these are still hard cases to prove. The officers aren't accused of killing Gray outright but a failing to take actions that could have prevented this fatal injury. Attorney Alperstein says there's also the lingering allegation that State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby acted in haste.

ALPERSTEIN: There's many that would argue that it was a political decision. You know, it was charged so quickly in an attempt to, you know, calm the civil unrest. That part was successful.

LUDDEN: But how will the public react to the trials, especially if there are no convictions? Law professor Jaros says that will be key.

JAROS: Whether or not the political lesson is, don't take on the police because it hurts your sort of political career or, you know what; the system's no longer tolerating it, people are watching. And this is the way to go.

KWAME ROSE: I am very skeptical.

LUDDEN: Kwame Rose has been a high profile protester since Freddie Gray's death. He's not impressed with prosecutors' aggressive approach, and he's cynical about the delay in the trials.

ROSE: I think it just shows, you know, we have to be prepared for the fact that no one will be held accountable by State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby. So it's up to the community.

LUDDEN: If there are no convictions, he says, it will be up to the public to keep pushing for justice. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.