‘How Long Does It Take to Click a Seat Belt?’: Closing Arguments in Freddie Gray Case

William Porter, one of six Baltimore City police officers charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray
Patrick Semansky-Pool/Getty Images

"How long does it take to click a seat belt and click a radio to ask for a medic? Two, three or four seconds?" Baltimore prosecutor Janice Bledsoe asked as she faced jurors during closing arguments in the first trial regarding the death of Freddie Gray. She then placed on the table, so jurors could see, the actual seat belt, stained with Gray's blood, from the van where Gray was injured. "Is two, three or four seconds worth a life?"

So began the compelling argument of the prosecution during the trial of Baltimore Police Officer William Porter in the death of Gray.


"Freddie Gray went into the van alive and Freddie Gray came out dead," Bledsoe said. 

Closing arguments began Monday in the first trial over Gray's death. Gray died while in the custody of Baltimore police earlier this year after an arrest and transport in a police van. Porter, who was involved in the arrest and transport of Gray, is facing involuntary manslaughter charges.


Porter is the first of six officers facing trial in Gray's death.

The prosecution spent a great deal of time attacking the credibility of Porter, reminding the jury that his initial statements to police before he knew he was a suspect conflicted with his testimony at trial. 


Detective Syreeta Keel, an officer in internal affairs investigating the death of Gray, testified that Porter told her during an interview she conducted after Gray's death that at the van's fourth stop, Gray told Porter he couldn't breathe. Bledsoe then played the interview tape and juxtaposed it with Porter's testimony in court when he said that didn't happen.

Then Bledsoe talked about Porter's failure to seat-belt Gray, and that Porter testified at the time that Gray was docile and "noncombative" when Porter helped him onto the bench in the van. But Bledsoe said he didn't take the time then to seat-belt him.


The burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove that Porter was grossly negligent and that his actions were a gross departure from what a reasonable officer in the same situation would do. The prosecution has to prove intent—that Porter consciously disregarded the risk involved in not seat-belting Gray and in not calling a medic. The jury will have to decide if Porter engaged in conduct that would have led to death or serious injury. 

It will prove difficult, considering, according to the defense, that there has been no other case in the country in which a police officer has been criminally charged for not seat-belting a prisoner. 


Defense attorney Joseph Murtha in his closing argument reiterated the fact that the jury must focus on the legalities of the case, not the moralities, and acquit if there's reasonable doubt. 

No matter the outcome, this case has highlighted flawed practices in police training, along with antiquated equipment and practices. Defense attorneys argued relentlessly about how antiquated computers prevent police from keeping on top of new policies and practices and that training learned is not repeatedly reinforced, with a witness testifying that "if you don't use it, you lose it." Every police witness testified that they don't seat-belt detainees in wagons and have rarely seen detainees seat-belted. 


According to the Baltimore Sun, prior allegations of injuries suffered during Baltimore police-van "rough rides" have led to civil lawsuits. Rough rides are a tactic that police have used in which they intentionally accelerate and abruptly stop a police van with detainees in the back without a seat belt—sometimes to get them to comply if they are disruptive; in other cases, to get them to confess. 

The family of Dondi Johnson Sr. won a $7.4 million verdict against police officers after a 2005 van ride left him a paraplegic, according to the Sun. A year earlier, a jury awarded Jeffrey Alston $39 million when a van ride left him paralyzed from the neck down.


Judge Barry Williams informed the jurors in the Gray case of the legal details of the charges—involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, second-degree assault and police misconduct in office—and reminded them that the defendant is presumed innocent and that it is up to the state to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Jurors began to deliberate around 2 p.m. Monday. Williams said that he expects the case to be finished no later than Dec. 17. The next trial, involving the van driver, Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., is set to begin Jan. 6. 

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