Freddie Gray Case: Judge acquits highest-ranking officer

BALTIMORE (First published by Talk Media News) –The highest-ranking Baltimore police officer charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray was acquitted on all counts Monday, marking the fourth time prosecutors have failed to win a conviction in the case.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams acquitted Lt. Brian Rice, 42, of involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office. A second-degree assault charge had been dismissed by the judge earlier in the trial, and prosecutors had dropped another misconduct charge.

Prosecutors argued Rice’s failure to secure Gray with a seat belt in the back of a police transport van led to the 25-year-old black man’s death. Gray, who suffered severe spinal cord injuries in the van, died a week after his arrest in April 2015.

“Lieutenant Rice’s decisions on April 12 [2015] cannot be blamed on poor judgment or error. His decisions form a chain, and that chain led to the death of Freddie Gray,” prosecutor Janice Bledsoe said during closing arguments. “If he had broken that chain and taken one small step of compassion and humanity, Freddie Gray would still be alive.”

Bledsoe had argued Rice, who is white, did not fasten the handcuffed and shackled Gray with a seat belt because the officer wanted to “punish and humiliate” Gray for resisting arrest.

But defense attorneys countered that what they called Gray’s combative behavior would have endangered officers if they climbed into the prisoner cage to seat belt him and said angry residents outside the West Baltimore public housing complex where Gray was arrested had surrounded the van, prompting officers to leave quickly for their safety.

Williams said prosecutors failed to prove not seat-belting Gray caused his death or that Rice was aware of a department policy requiring seat belts for prisoners during transport.

“The state failed to show that the defendant, even if he was aware of the risk, consciously disregarded that risk,” the judge said.

Moreover, Williams said, failure to seat-belt a detainee in itself is not a crime.

“Failing to seat-belt a detainee in a transport wagon is not inherently criminal conduct,” the judge said, delivering his verdict in the bench trial.

A gag order imposed by Williams forbids prosecutors and defense attorneys to comment publicly on the case.

The death of Gray led to mass protests, 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.

All six officers pleaded not guilty.

Two other officers charged in the case, Edward Nero and Caesar Goodson Jr., who faced the most serious charges, including murder, had been acquitted of all charges in bench trials before Williams. Officer Garrett Miller is to be tried July 27 and Sgt. Alicia White Oct. 13. Officer William Porter is to be retried Sept. 6 after a 12-member jury could not reach a consensus on any of the charges against him, leading to a mistrial.

After Goodson’s acquittal last month, Lt. Gene Ryan, 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 officers and calling it an “insult to the taxpaying citizens of Baltimore” that impedes police officers trying to do their jobs.

Only a smattering of protesters gathered outside the downtown Baltimore courthouse Monday. But tensions over police brutality in Baltimore and nationwide flared here Saturday night, when 65 people were arrested after blocking Interstate 83 near downtown.