Police Officer in Freddie Gray Case Elects Bench Trial

BALTIMORE (The Baltimore Sun/TNS) -

Baltimore Police Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., the driver of the van in which Freddie Gray suffered a fatal neck injury, has elected to have a bench trial — making him the second officer in a row to put his legal fate in the hands of a judge rather than a jury.

Goodson’s trial will begin at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams decided during a pretrial motions hearing on Monday. Both sides had previously planned for jury selection to take several days, so they had not scheduled witnesses to be available until Thursday, Williams said.

Goodson, 46, is charged with what’s known as depraved-heart murder, a second-degree felony charge that carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. He also faces three counts of manslaughter and charges of second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment.

Gray, 25, died in April 2015, a week after his arrest. His death sparked widespread protests, and his funeral was followed by rioting, looting and arson.

Six Baltimore police officers were charged in Gray’s arrest and death. One, Officer Edward Nero, was acquitted of four misdemeanor charges by Williams during a bench trial last month. Another, Officer William Porter, had a mistrial as the result of a hung jury in December and will be tried again. All of the officers pleaded not guilty.

At both Nero’s and Porter’s trials, many law enforcement officers and officials testified that Goodson, as the van driver, had ultimate responsibility for Gray’s safety. Gray was injured after being handcuffed and shackled but not restrained by seat belt in the back of Goodson’s van.

Goodson was the only one of the six charged officers who did not provide a recorded statement to police investigators. In recent weeks, he has also challenged key evidence in the case, which Williams addressed during the motions hearing Monday.

Williams granted a motion by Goodson to block as hearsay an unrecorded statement that Porter allegedly made to a police investigator — that Gray had said “I can’t breathe” at a stop of the van where Gray, Porter and Goodson interacted.

Porter denied making the statement to Detective Syreeta Teel at his own trial, where Teel testified that he had made the comment to her during a phone conversation that came prior to Porter providing a recorded statement.

On Monday, Williams said that while Porter’s alleged comment was admissible at his trial because he was a direct party to that case, it was not admissible at Goodson’s trial because Porter is merely a witness. As the alleged statement was not recorded, it essentially becomes Teel’s statement, not Porter’s, Williams ruled, and in that way is inadmissible hearsay.

Williams denied a separate defense motion to block portions of assistant medical examiner Dr. Carol Allan’s autopsy of Gray that rely on the statements of other out-of-court witnesses.

Williams found that outside statements that experts reasonably rely on to reach opinions are admissible as the foundation of the opinion itself, not for their own truthfulness. Williams said that as the sole decider in the case, he would be able to apply that distinction.

Williams said his denial of the autopsy motion was made in regards to all challenged statements except for Porter’s alleged statement to Teel.

It is unclear how the exclusion of Porter’s alleged statement might affect the testimony surrounding the autopsy. At Porter’s trial, Allan was heavily challenged by the defense on the information she used to conclude that Gray’s death was a homicide.

Williams also denied defense motions to dismiss the case for violating Goodson’s right to a speedy trial and on the claim that prosecutors had not fully outlined the alleged acts that constituted the crimes charged.