Closing arguments were made Monday in the trial of Baltimore Police Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., the driver of the van that carried Freddie Gray in April 2015. Goodson faces the most serious charges out of the six officers connected to Gray's death.
Goodson's charges include second-degree depraved-heart murder (a murder committed with indifference to human life), involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, manslaughter by vehicle, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. The murder charge carries a maximum sentence of 30 years.
Before closing arguments were delivered, Goodson and Officer Edward Nero exchanged handshakes and smiles at the front of the courtroom. Nero, acquitted of all charges in his trial last month, sat attentively and listened as the prosecution and the defense presented their final position.
The state argued that Goodson failed his constitutional duty as a police officer to protect the well-being of the detainee. Prosecutor Janice Beldsoe noted that several witnesses, including Officer Porter, testified that Goodson as the driver of the police van had the primary responsibility to ensure that Gray was safely transported.
"The state has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he breached this duty," Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe argued that Goodson, a veteran police officer, not only was trained on how to place detainees in seat belts and when to call for medical treatment but also worked as a field-training officer for new recruits. Bledsoe noted that Goodson had the opportunity to place Gray in a seat belt on four different occasions and failed to notify his supervisor after making an unreported stop. Bledsoe claimed that during this stop, Gray suffered injuries that would prove to be life-threatening.
"No one goes into the wagon and looks to see what's going on with Gray," Bledsoe said. "Instead they close the door and leave him."
Defense attorney Matthew Fraling argued that Goodson acted as any reasonable officer would have and that the state did not prove its case that Gray had suffered a "rough ride."
Fraling claimed that Goodson didn’t put Gray in a seat belt for fear of his own safety, that a gathering crowd presented a potential “mob development” and Gray was acting "uncooperative, resistant and combative" during the van ride.
"The continuum slides up and down between combative and docile, and those circumstances can change quickly," Fraling said.
Fraling seemed to blame Gray for his death by saying that Gray may have created a high degree of risk by allegedly changing his position in the back of the van.
At the heart of the prosecution's case is proving that Goodson displayed malicious intent. It's not enough in a criminal case to say that Goodson didn't follow the guidelines of police protocol; the state has to prove that he did so with the intent to harm Gray.
"I think it will be difficult to prove Officer Goodson's state of mind that day," University of Baltimore law professor David Jaros said. "The crime of gross negligence requires not just that you act unreasonably but that you were aware of the risks that you're taking. Goodson may think, ‘I need to take this guy to the hospital, but I can take him in five minutes; I don't need to take him this second.’ Then he hasn't committed a crime, even though he's done something that’s terribly negligent."
The defense needs to prove not only that Goodson followed protocol using his best judgment but also that Gray's injuries may have been sustained by his own doing, a tactic that Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore City chapter of the NAACP, finds insulting.
"The audacity for the defense to blame this on Freddie; how low can you go?" Hill-Aston said. "He was injured and he needed medical attention and he needed a seat belt."
Despite the outcome, Hill-Aston feels that, in part, justice has been served.
"I’m proud that the state’s attorney’s office brought this to court," she said. "For the Police Department, we are going to see things change. Police are on alert and realize they better think before they do something like this again."
Experts note that a case like this is unprecedented.
"The judge is wrestling with a new situation of culpability," said Jaros. "We have not seen prosecutors bring charges for police officers failing to protect a detainee and eventually causing his death."
"If there is a conviction on any of the charges, we're looking at a historic moment not just in Baltimore but throughout the country," said University of Maryland law professor Doug Colbert.
"We've only seen four police officers convicted in nearly 10,000 deaths in the line of police duty. We have to appreciate that we're looking at something new, something that usually doesn't happen," Colbert continued. "The prosecution had a great deal of courage to bring these charges. Whether or not they succeed, we have learned a great deal. You have to ask yourself, why wouldn’t there be criminal charges when someone is taken into police custody alive and seemingly OK, and then within a few minutes winds up in a situation that he ultimately dies from? Why wouldn’t police officers be held criminally responsible?"
Judge Barry Williams will announce the verdict on Thursday at 10 a.m.