While cases of police misconduct flood the news, a trial involving the death of Freddie Gray is set to begin Monday in Baltimore.
The trial, which has fallen under the radar a bit because of a gag order imposed by Judge Barry Williams, is the first of six separate trials for the police officers accused in Gray’s death. Monday will signal the beginning of the trial of Officer William Porter, who, along with the driver of the van in which Gray was being transported, allegedly checked on Gray during a stop but didn’t report his medical condition. Now Porter is facing a charge of manslaughter in Gray’s death. It’s a charge that some criminal experts, like Russell Neverdon, don’t think will stick.
“They are using terms like ‘failure’ and ‘negligence’—terms associated with a civil case, not a criminal case,” says Neverdon, executive director of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Inmate Grievance Office in Baltimore.
Neverdon also questions when Gray’s fatal injury occurred. In video recorded by a passerby, Neverdon says, it is easy to see that Gray is in physical distress. “It is indicative of someone who has sustained some kind of nerve damage already,” says Neverdon. “You don’t know how he was taken down and handcuffed. We do know he’s yelling before he gets in the van, saying he’s in pain.”
The theory of the prosecution is that Gray was the victim of a “rough ride,” a term that refers to when police intentionally refuse to put suspects in seat belts and then drive erratically, jostling them around the car or van, often in attempts to make them confess to crimes. Prosecutors allege that Gray received his fatal injury when his head bumped against a bolt in the van during such a ride.
“They are saying the injury is consistent with a bolt inside the van. What holds the front tire to the frame of a bike? A bolt. Two officers on bikes arrested him. The injury could have been sustained then,” says Neverdon. “Did they get DNA off of that bolt?”
Porter gave conflicting testimonies when questioned early on about what happened. Often in cases with multiple defendants, the state hopes that one witness will turn on the other.
“Anytime witnesses, be it police officers or otherwise, testify about one incident, there’s going to be inconsistencies,” says Jason Downs, an attorney for Gray’s family. “Here, I would expect there to be inconsistencies, but I can’t answer whether it will be incriminating or not.”
Neverdon says he believes that Porter will make a statement that is damaging to the rest of the officers and receive a lesser charge: “Even if it’s an innocent, innocuous statement which will probably set up the state’s case. A negligence charge is a misdemeanor. He can keep his pension and still be an officer.”
Following Porter’s trial will be the trials of Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr., the driver of the police van, who is the only officer charged with second-degree murder; Sgt. Alicia White and Lt. Brian Rice, who are charged with manslaughter; and Officers Edward M. Nero and Garrett E. Miller, who face lesser charges, including second-degree assault.
All six have been charged with misconduct.
Attorneys for the six police officers—Joseph Murtha (Porter), Andrew Jay Graham (Goodson), Ivan Bates (White), Marc Zayon (Nero), Catherine Flynn (Miller) and Michael Belsky (Rice)—did not return calls seeking comments about the upcoming trial.
A guilty verdict may set a precedent in similar cases involving police misconduct. A similar case is happening in Chicago in the shooting death of teen Laquan McDonald, for which Police Officer Jason Van Dyke has been charged with first-degree murder—the first time a Chicago police officer has been charged in an on-duty fatality in nearly 35 years.
“Right now the country as a whole is focusing on these types of cases, so the lens is on everything that comes out of this case,” Downs says. “Unfortunately, there are too many Freddie Grays that we don’t know about. What’s different about this case is that it’s going to trial.”