During opening statements Thursday in the trial of Baltimore Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. over the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Shatzow alleged that Gray was the victim of a “rough ride.”
It was the first time that the practice of a rough ride has been mentioned during any of the three trials of police officers that have been held so far over the death of Gray. The clandestine practice, meant to punish a disruptive detainee and/or force a detainee to talk, involves arresting someone, handcuffing him or her, and intentionally putting the person in the van without securing him or her with a seat belt. Officers then take the detainee on a journey accelerating, braking and decelerating abruptly. Arrestees have crashed into walls, fallen off gurneys and died as a result of this practice.
“I think that’s absolutely correct that he got a rough ride,” said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of Baltimore City’s NAACP, who has been in the courtroom regularly for all three trials. “We get a lot of complaints from the Western District for rough rides. It’s still unclear why they were making so many stops. When you lock somebody up, you take them from one point to central booking.”
The city has paid out millions to victims of rough rides who have been injured, including one man, Dondi Johnson Sr., who was paralyzed in 2005 after being recklessly driven around by police.
Defense attorney Andrew Jay Graham countered that prosecutors will be unable to prove that Gray’s death was intentional and argued that his death was the result of a “freakish accident” in which Gray may have unintentionally injured himself.
“The defense gave a strong opening, including the suggestion that Gray may have injured himself,” said Doug Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland. “They are planting seeds in order to get a reasonable doubt of guilt.”
Goodson, the driver of the van that transported Gray, is facing the most serious charges. The 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.
As part of the evidence that Goodson’s driving was erratic, prosecutors referred to video showing him running a stop sign and then making a wild turn in which the van crosses the center yellow line. After Goodson ran the stop sign, he stopped the van (this was the van’s second stop) and walked to the back doors to check on Gray. A minute or two later, Goodson called a dispatcher, radioing in that he “needs someone to check this prisoner out.” The van was five minutes away from central booking. “He’s stopping here because he knows Gray has been injured,” Shatzow stated in opening arguments.
The defense argued that officers regularly deal with detainees who fake injuries in order to go to the hospital instead of jail. Officers refer to it as “jailitis.” The defense argued that at stop 5, Gray was talking in a normal manner and none of the other officers on the scene thought he had a severe medical issue, and that by stop 6 Gray was unresponsive. A witness for the prosecution, Baltimore City Police Officer Brian Burke, said that it is not the job of the officer to determine whether a detainee is faking an injury. “The person should directed to a medic and they can make that determination,” said Burke.
The case hinges on when Gray sustained his injuries and why Gray wasn’t belted in. The prosecution said that Goodson, a veteran officer who knew and understood policy regarding the use of seat belts for detainees, "had the ultimate responsibility for the safety of Mr. Gray." The defense has argued that Gray was a “combative” detainee, but officers on the scene—including Officer Edward Nero, who was acquitted in his trial, and Officer Garrett Miller, who has a pending trial—testified that Gray was cooperative during the entire arrest process. According to the prosecution, evidence will show that Gray was injured before stop 4.
Before the trial began, there was a 90-minute hearing during which the defense argued that the case should be dismissed on a legal technicality because the prosecution did not submit evidence to the defense regarding an interview with witness Donta Allen, who shared the last leg of the van ride in the left partition with Gray. Although Allen could not see Gray, he initially testified that he heard loud banging that he attributed to Gray banging his head against the wall. He later recanted and said it sounded like “a light tapping.” In the third interview with prosecutors, he went back to his original statement that he heard loud banging.
Judge Barry G. Williams lambasted the prosecution for not following the law as it relates to submitting information in discovery. Williams denied the motion to dismiss the case but ordered the prosecution to submit by Monday any evidence they may not have submitted in pending trials, saying that he was concerned about what other information they may have withheld. The prosecution argued that Allen, who was arrested for buying a loose cigarette on the day Gray was arrested and had provided information in a cooperative effort so that he wasn't charged, wasn't a credible witness and that they didn't think the evidence was worthy of submission. The defense noted that they will be bringing in Allen as a defense witness for trial.