As Judge Barry Williams read the last not guilty verdict about the seven charges Baltimore Police Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. faced regarding the death of Freddie Gray, members of Goodson’s family, sitting in the courtroom's center aisle, wept and hugged one another. Officer Edward Nero, who was acquitted a few weeks ago in Gray’s death, cried out, “Yes!”
There was no question that the state faced an uphill battle to get convictions of the six police officers charged in the Gray case in a climate where officers are rarely convicted, but the Goodson trial was likely its most important one, with the most serious charges. Goodson faced charges of 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.
As the packed courtroom exited Thursday, including many from national media outlets who had attended the trial for the first time, a small group of protesters were gathered outside, including Tawanda Jones, the sister of Tyrone West, a man who had died in police custody.
"There will be more Freddie Grays and Tyrone Wests because of this bull-crap judicial system," she said through tears. "It’s legalized genocide. Until we dismantle a corrupt system that allows this, or we change laws, it's going to continuously happen. They are sending a strong message that black lives don’t matter. We, as constituents, whether you’re law-abiding or not, you don’t matter."
Debbie Hines, a Washington, D.C., attorney who formerly worked with the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office, said she was disappointed, but not surprised, by the verdict.
"The evidence just wasn't there," she said. "[Judge] Williams specifically asked what were the signs that a person would see with the injury that Gray had. And the neurologist Soriano didn’t answer it directly. What would a regular person, not a doctor, see? Williams was trying to get that out of him."
Hines doesn't see this acquittal as boding well for future cases, particularly since Goodson faced the most serious charges.
"This was their best shot," she said. "There was some evidence in [Baltimore Police Officer William] Porter's case that could not come out in this case that may help the prosecution."
Hines says that any widespread corruption in the Baltimore Police Department will hopefully be uncovered and resolved by the U.S. Department of Justice investigation.
"Hopefully the Department of Justice will set some criteria and hopefully there will be some legislation going forward to have independent investigations in police shootings or death or serious injuries," she said. "Have both independent prosecutors and an independent police investigation."
"[Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn] Mosby did what she had to do to get the charges, with having an independent investigation, because if she had not, with the police investigating the police, there would be no charges," Hines added. "I was most proud of her for that. She did what she had to in order to make sure officers would stand trial, and it's up to a judge or jury to determine guilt or innocence."
Defense attorney Warren Brown disagreed, saying that Mosby overreached with the charges.
"If they couldn’t get a conviction in front of a judge who was a former prosecutor of police misconduct, then with the balance of the cases that are much weaker, they ought to just dismiss them," Brown said.
"People should not look negatively at the state's attorney's office," said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of Baltimore City's NAACP chapter. "I think people should feel proud that she had the strength and knowledge to take officers to court. This may save other people’s lives. Police will look at themselves on the streets when they’re dealing with people in poor communities. I hope police will be smart enough not to be dumb enough to do this again."
Sharon Black, an activist with People’s Power Assembly, said she was cautiously optimistic about the outcome.
"We can't get justice in the courts," Black said. "So we have to get it in the streets. It's going to take mobilizing and bigger efforts to make sure justice is served."
"It is very difficult to convict a police officer in this country," said University of Maryland professor Doug Colbert. "Many will wonder how a 25-year-old Gray could be left in a dangerous situation he was experiencing while in police custody. Usually these cases are dismissed behind the closed door of a grand jury. Here we have a prosecutor who conducted an independent investigation, which had to be done in this case."
He continued: "I have spoken to a number of officers who said they would have handled things differently if they were the transport driver and if they were the arresting officers. It is very difficult for people to understand how you can leave someone in the back of a transport van, handcuffed and shackled with no protection. And the person dies or suffers fatal injury while in police custody."
The Rev. C.D. Witherspoon stood holding his young son as he spoke into a microphone.
"The justice system has sent a message, the same message they sent to Emmett Till’s mother in 1965, the same message they sent to Myrlie Evers when Medgar Evers was murdered, the same message to Rodney King’s family when he was beaten by the LAPD," Witherspoon said.