Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., 46, was found not guilty of murder charges in the death of Freddie Gray.
BALTIMORE (Talk Media News) – The acquittal of the only Baltimore police officer charged with murder in the death of Freddie Gray represents a major blow to prosecutors and dims their chances of winning convictions against other officers charged in Gray’s death, legal observers say.
Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., 46, drove the police van that transported Gray, 25, after his arrest in April 2015. Prosecutors had claimed Goodson gave Gray a “rough ride”– driving recklessly and causing the shackled suspect, who was not secured with seatbelts, to be thrown about the van’s steel cage violently, causing his fatal injuries.
In handing down his verdict this morning, Judge Barry G. Williams said, “The court finds there is insufficient evidence that the defendant gave or intended to give Mr. Gray a rough ride.”
The judge in the eight-day, non-jury trial added that evidence did not indicate Goodson “intended for any crime to happen.”
The rough ride theory had been a key element of the prosecution’s case against the six officers, legal analysts who have closely followed the case noted.
Warren S. Alperstein, a veteran Baltimore defense attorney who has represented numerous police officers but is not involved in the Gray case, said prosecutors failed to make their case against Goodson.
“The state made the ‘rough ride’ theory a centerpiece of its case and when the ‘rough ride’ theory was not proven – at all – a significant part of the state’s case fell apart,” Alperstein said. “There was no evidence of a ‘rough ride,’ and that certainly was something that bothered Judge Williams.”
Alperstein also said prosecutors failed to prove Goodson was aware of injuries Gray suffered during the 45-minute ride
And Douglas Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland law school who has closely followed the Gray case, said Thursday’s decision “is going to tell the prosecution that they are going to have to bring stronger evidence to court to convince this judge.”
“We all learned from this, and I think from the prosecution’s point of view… they understand how difficult, how challenging it is and how unpopular it is to bring an officer to trail,” Colbert added. “They are going to learn more, as they already have, about what is going to be necessary to convict any of the officers.”
None of the three officers tried thus far in Gray’s arrest and death — of six charged — have been convicted.
Lt. Gene Ryan, who is president of the union representing Baltimore police officers, denounced Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby for prosecuting the six officers, calling on her to “reconsider her malicious prosecution against the remaining four officers.”
“To continue this travesty is an insult to the taxpaying citizens of Baltimore,” Ryan said. “The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office has been playing politics with our agency, making it extremely difficult for our officers to do the job that our citizens demand of them. She has done a disservice to our members, the City of Baltimore and its citizens. There has been enough suffering. It is time for us to put this sad chapter behind us and move forward in a positive manner.”
A gag order imposed by Williams forbids the state’s attorney’s office and defense attorneys for the officers to discuss the case with anyone outside their own legal teams.
The death of Gray, who was black, led to mass rioting, vandalism, arson and looting across the majority black city of about 620,000, prompting Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to call in the Maryland National Guard and Democratic Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to impose a citywide curfew. Critics called police abuse of blacks rampant here, and Gray became a high-profile symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality.
Minutes after the verdict protesters outside the courthouse in downtown Baltimore chanted, “We can’t stop! We won’t stop, till killer cops are in cell blocks!” and “Justice for Freddie Gray! Put those killer cops away!”
Billy Murphy, the attorney for Gray’s family, which won a $6.4 million settlement from the city in September 2015 for civil claims in Gray’s arrest and death, said at a news conference that the family shares “everybody else’s anger and frustration that no police officer has yet been brought to justice in this case.”
“We share this family’s enormous frustration with the pursuit of justice in these cases,” Murphy said.
He also said the family views Mosby as “one of the most courageous prosecutors in the United States … who has led the fight against police brutality.”
Outside the courthouse, Cornell W. Brooks, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, expressed disappointment with the verdict.
“Was justice served for the citizens of Baltimore? No, because the underlining concerns, the underlining challenges with in the Police Department remain as they are,” Brooks said. “When you have a police department that stands on one side of a chasm of distrust and a community on the other, justice is not served.”
On Thursday, the office of Hogan, the first-term Republican governor, warned that he would again declare a state of emergency and that the Maryland National Guard would respond quickly to any violence or vandalism.
“Governor Hogan continues to respect the legal process, as well as the court’s decision,” Hogan press secretary Shareese Churchill said in a statement. “Over the past year, the people of Baltimore City have made tremendous progress in rebuilding their communities and businesses. Our administration will continue to support Baltimore’s leadership and citizens in their ongoing efforts to move forward from the events of last year.”
Rawlings-Blake, who was forced to abandon her plans to seek re-election in the Democratic mayoral primary in late April over her response to last year’s riots, pleaded for a peaceful response to the latest verdict.
“We once again ask the citizens to be patient and to allow the entire process to come to a conclusion… I know that the citizens of Baltimore will continue to respect the judicial process and the ruling of the court,” Rawlings-Blake said.
Catherine Pugh, who won the Democratic mayoral primary, virtually guaranteeing her election, in this overwhelmingly Democratic city, said in a statement: “I ask the citizens of Baltimore to continue to be patient as the process continues to move forward. Although people may disagree with the verdict, it is important to respect each other and to respect our neighborhoods and our communities.”
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, (D-Md.), also called for calm.
“I know that many of our neighbors will be disappointed and frustrated by today’s verdict, and I understand those emotions,” Cummings said.
“But we must continue to channel our energies into efforts to improve our city for all residents, and continue to improve our police department’s practices and procedures to ensure that the policing of our streets is conducted professionally, safely, and fairly in all parts of our city. Baltimore’s future does not rest on the outcomes of the trials surrounding Mr. Freddie Gray’s death. Baltimore’s future rests on every one of us.”
Judge Williams rejected prosecutors’ argument that Goodson had an obligation to seat-belt Gray and seek medical attention for Gray, who suffered severe spinal injuries. He did not do so, leading to the charge that Goodson committed second-degree murder with a “depraved heart.”
In closing arguments, Deputy State’s Attorney Janice Bledsoe also said, “[Goodson] had a duty to keep Mr. Gray safe, seat-belting would have kept Mr. Gray safe.”
Williams also acquitted Goodson of three counts of manslaughter and one count each of second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.
Goodson, who is black, had faced the most serious charges among the six officers accused in Gray’s death.
Williams found Officer Edward Nero not guilty of all counts last month. The trial of Officer William G. Porter ended in a hung jury in December, and prosecutors have said he will be retried. Three other officers are to be tried in July, September and October.
TMN intern Joshua Ramirez contributed to this report.