In closing arguments Thursday in the trial of Baltimore Police Lt. Brian Rice relating to the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, the prosecution argued that Rice showed a reckless disregard for Gray's life by throwing him into the transport wagon facedown, shackled and handcuffed onto a dirty, corrugated floor, and that as a commanding officer, Rice held greater culpability than other officers for failing to secure Gray in a seat belt.
Rice, 42, is charged with involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.
The prosecution, led by Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow and Deputy State's Attorney of Criminal Intelligence Janice Bledsoe, argued that at stop 2, there was a sparse crowd of about three people, along with Gray's friend Brandon Ross. Defense lawyer Michael Belsky argued that according to police witnesses who were compelled to testify (Edward Nero, who was acquitted in his trial, and William Porter, who faces his retrial in the fall), the crowd was threatening and Rice had only a few seconds to make a decision about putting Gray in a seat belt and getting the van out of what they described as a chaotic space.
With video evidence, which included cellphone and CCTV footage, the prosecution showed that the crowd was sparser than the defense argued. Bledsoe said that there were five police officers on the scene who could have aided Rice if he was having trouble attaching Gray's seat belt.
Rice did not testify throughout the trial; nor was his initial statement to police after the incident used in the trial.
The prosecution painted Rice as an officer who was escalating tensions with onlookers, rather than de-escalating, during Gray's arrest by threatening them with arrests and jail time. Ross, Bledsoe reminded the judge, referred to Rice as a "jerk" during his testimony.
"Rice has been on the force for 18 years and was promoted to a commander and lieutenant," Bledsoe said. Referring to Rice’s having to make a split-second decision, he added, "He had 18 years to make this decision."
Belsky argued that the state failed to present any evidence to suggest that Rice knew of the risks associated with placing Gray on the floor of the van without securing him in a seat belt. The burden is on the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Rice knew the risks and acted with corrupt intent.
The prosecution wasn't allowed to argue that civil suits relating to "rough rides" have cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in settlements for passengers who were not in seat belts. Last October, according to Baltimore Sun reports, the city paid $95,000 to settle a federal lawsuit filed by Christine Abbott, a Johns Hopkins University librarian, who alleged that she was subjected to a rough ride in 2012. Abbott said that police did not buckle her in before "maniacally" driving around after her arrest at a party on charges that were later dropped. At least three citizens have been paralyzed from rides in police transport vans. One ended up a quadriplegic.
"The prosecution could have used testimony if there was a witness that came forward from the city who said, ‘We have informed the [Baltimore Police] Department that there are huge settlements that are taking place as a result of the failure to care and protect prisoners,’” said University of Maryland law professor Doug Colbert. “‘And we are telling you that you have to do things differently.’ … That in effect is really what the police general order was all about. That these lawsuits were costing taxpayers money."
Although prosecutors have lost two cases with the same arguments, Colbert remains optimistic about their case. "They have a strong case. They're determined to convict an officer, and that's not something that we see often," said Colbert, who has been following the trials on a daily basis. "It's historic; it’s precedent-setting."
Warren Alperstein, a Baltimore defense attorney who has been following the case closely, is less optimistic about the chances of a conviction. "The case comes down to foreseeability in the failure to seat-belt. There's no general order that requires a lieutenant to perform any different than anyone else. There's no evidence whatsoever that Lt. Rice intended for Freddie Gray to be injured or had any ill will towards Gray. It's very difficult to prove."