With the trial of William Porter set to begin Wednesday, the first of six trials in the death of Freddie Gray, it is clear that this will be no ordinary case. This is in part because Judge Barry Williams, 53, is no ordinary judge.
During the jury-selection process, Williams asked a pool of hundreds of potential jurors standard questions to gauge impartiality in the case, like whether any members of their immediate family were employed in any way by a law-enforcement agency.
“Your immediate family, not your aunts, uncles or play cousins from North Carolina that you haven’t talked to in two years,” he subtly joked to the potential jurors, many of whom are black.
Not everyone gets the playful nuance of this joke: that is, that black people have always had an extended community of family members who weren’t blood relatives, sometimes so close that it is easy to forget that they’re not really relatives.
In a potentially precedent-setting set of trials where three of the defendants are black and three are white; a police-misconduct case where the victim is African American, the judge is African American, and the state’s attorney, former police commissioner and mayor are all African American; and where the city erupted in riots following the death of the victim, the Freddie Gray case presents a real difference from other brutality cases where police are often tried by mostly white juries, judges and prosecutors.
Most of the reporters assigned to cover this trial are not from Baltimore. For many, their first introduction to Baltimore was during the unrest. The backstory of Baltimore—of rivalries of high academic achievement between high schools like Polytechnic High School and City College; of judges like Thurgood Marshall; of best-in-the-world basketball championships won at Dunbar High School; of black middle-class families in neighborhoods like Ashburton, Reservoir Hill and Sandtown; of the blockbusting and redlining in Edmondson Village; of political dynasties like the Clarence Mitchell family, after which the courthouse the trials are in is named for—isn’t part of the narrative. Most reporters were embedded here for the melee, starting the story of Baltimore with the riots, the National Guard, peaceful protests, tear gas, supermoms and “broken-windows” policing.
Pictures of judges line the wall on the fourth floor of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, with a large number of black, female, white and Asian judges of all ages pictured. It is a good representation of the city’s diversity.
Williams, who has been a judge since he was appointed in 2005 by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has prosecuted police-misconduct cases across the country for the federal government. In Missouri, Williams prosecuted three officers charged with beating a high school student, according to the Baltimore Sun. In Florida he won a conviction against an officer who pistol-whipped a teen fleeing a drug bust. In the Virgin Islands, he prosecuted and convicted an officer for violating the civil rights of a dozen people over a four-year period.
Williams graduated with a history degree from the University of Virginia and graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law, eventually prosecuting street crimes for the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office for eight years until he joined the Justice Department in 1997 as an attorney and a special litigation counsel.
As jury selection enters the third day, 75 new jurors were interviewed Tuesday after 75 were interviewed on Monday. It is clear why it is important that the jurors accurately reflect the makeup of the city. It’s hard for outsiders to understand the particulars of this city. The stark contrasts of the rich and poor (not always defined by race or location) are such that you can enter a mansion in Guilford and a just few blocks over see dozens of abandoned houses.
Famed Baltimore attorney Billy Murphy, who represents the Gray family, in a video interview with the Sun, warned everyone not to rush to judgment and to be patient about jury selection. “We’re a city where our criminal-justice system has not always been fair, especially to the black community,” he said. “Justice is based on proof or not proof, and only the jury is going to be in the position to know whether the case was proved or not proved.”
There is still the possibility that defense attorneys could renew their request to move the trial, depending on what happens with the jury pool. Williams initially denied the request to move the case out of the city but left open the possibility of moving the case to another jurisdiction if an impartial jury can’t be seated.
As the chants from about 30 to 40 protesters, including relatives of Tyrone West (who also died in police custody back in 2013), echoed into the courtroom on the first day of jury selection, it’s easy to see why moving the trial out of Baltimore would be a huge mistake.
This is a trial to give Baltimore the opportunity to have a voice in its own narrative as much as it is a trial to prove innocence or guilt.