Fourteen months after the death of a black man whose neck was broken in a police van prompted massive protests, spawned rioting and toppled the careers of Baltimore’s police commissioner and a Democratic mayor poised for re-election, authorities abandoned efforts to punish the officers involved.
The city’s top prosecutor was righteous in her rage Wednesday as she made official what was already clear after four failed attempts to prosecute: no one will go to jail for Freddie Gray’s death.
Earlier in the day, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby had dropped the cases against the rest of the six police officers charged in Gray’s death after prosecutors had suffered blow after crippling blow as a judge acquitted three others in rapid succession. Instead of conceding defeat, she blasted the police department for a biased investigation she blamed for failing to secure a single conviction.
“The prosecution of on-duty police officers in this country is surprisingly rare and blatantly wrought with systemic and inherent complications,” the Democratic prosecutor said. “Unlike other cases where prosecutors work closely with the police to investigate what actually occurred, what we realized very early on in this case was that, police investigating police — whether they’re friends or colleagues — was problematic. There was a reluctance and bias that was consistently exemplified.”
Gray died a week after he suffered a spinal injury in the back of the detainee wagon while he was handcuffed and shackled, but not buckled in with a seat belt. Prosecutors alleged the officers involved in his arrest and transport were criminally negligent when they failed to use the seat belt, instead placing Gray face-down and head-first on the floor of a prisoner compartment. The state also said the officers erred when they chose not to call a medic after Gray indicated he wanted to go to a hospital.
Last May, Mosby said in announcing the charges that her decision to prosecute was based on both a police department investigation and a separate, independent investigation conducted by her office.
Three of the four officers who stood trial elected to have Circuit Judge Barry Williams hear their cases without juries. Williams then ruled three times in a row that although the officers may have exercised poor judgment, the state presented no evidence to prove they meant to hurt Gray. Without evidence or eyewitnesses to prove intent, he said, he could not convict. The other trial ended in a mistrial.
The city spent roughly $7.4 million on the trials, according to Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
The proceedings revealed deep fissures among the police, prosecutors and the people of Baltimore. During the trial of van driver Officer Caesar Goodson, Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow accused a lead detective of trying to sabotage the investigation; in turn, the detective accused another prosecutor, Jan Bledsoe, of dismissing unfavorable evidence.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis rejected Mosby’s accusations, saying that “while we are all entitled to our own opinions, we are not entitled to our own facts.” Marc Zayon, Nero’s attorney, said Mosby had “spun a false narrative” in her prosecution of the officers with “no evidence that there was any wrongdoing.”
Ivan Bates, who represented Sgt. Alicia White, added, “it is the Baltimore city state’s attorney’s office that denied justice to the Gray family and to these officers.”
Gray’s death prompted protests and became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. Three of the officers charged in his arrest and death are black, and three are white.
Some legal experts say the case’s outcome proves that Mosby’s desire to charge the officers was ill-conceived and politically motivated. To others, her office’s failure to secure a conviction is simply indicative of the grave challenges associated with prosecuting police, and the fact that she brought the charges in the first place should be celebrated as a slice of victory.
“This is part of the pains of breaking new ground,” said Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland, Baltimore, law school professor who observed each trial. “It’s an arduous task that requires dedication. But the message to every police officer is: You must protect and safeguard your prisoner or face possible prosecution. That wouldn’t happen if these cases hadn’t been prosecuted. It would have been just another person dying and the police would continue to engage in the same practices.”
But Warren Alperstein, an attorney in private practice who also watched the trials in their entirety, said Mosby’s inability to convict “was a total failure by the state’s attorney’s office.”
“Considering back in May of last year Ms. Mosby passionately promised the citizens of Baltimore city that justice would be sought through the conviction of these six officers, the bottom line is the state failed.”
University of Baltimore law professor David Jaros said the acquittals and dropped cases will embolden both Mosby’s supporters and critics.
“Different communities experience policing in very different ways and view these cases through very different lenses: For some, there may be a belief that Marilyn Mosby fought the good fight and was defeated by the resistance of a police department unwilling to prosecute their own. Among others, this will be proof that the charges were not warranted in the first place,” he said. “It’s striking that this case demonstrates the limitations of expecting a criminal prosecution to resolve very difficult issues.”