Six Baltimore police officers charged with various crimes in connection with the death of Freddie Gray will probably be tried in Maryland’s largest city. Judge Barry Williams found that it was too early to tell whether it will be possible to find an untainted jury, and ruled that the potential jurors be screened first to make that determination. He also ruled that the officers will be tried separately beginning with officer William Porter, charged with manslaughter, misconduct, reckless endangerment, and assault. If all the facts of this case are honestly examined, it might be hard to avoid the conclusion that they should not be tried in Baltimore.
The ordeal began on April 12 when Freddie Gray was stopped by police after attempting to flee the Gilmore Homes housing project. When he was caught, and later found to have an illegal switchblade in his possession, he was placed in the back of a patrol van to be transported to the Baltimore Police Station. At one point the van stopped and Gray was put in shackles because, according to police, he was moving around too much. Somewhere along the way Gray was seriously injured. Authorities maintain that he was not breathing when the van arrived at the police station. According to the official record, he slipped into a coma and died on April 19 from a severe spinal injury.
Following his death, the city erupted in violence. Police tried to restore order while bricks flew, cars and buildings burned, and glass filled Baltimore city streets. Looters took to the streets, ransacking local stores including a pharmacy that was later burned to the ground. Eventually, the city called in the National Guard and implemented a curfew. Since the beginning of the riots on April 27, violent crimes, including homicides, have steadily increased.
In the aftermath of this scenario, “Charm City” must find nine jurors for each of the six trials ordered to determine the guilt or innocence of the officers involved. Jurors must be able to put their prejudices aside in order to arrive at fair verdicts in each case. The judge asserted that the first trial will help the court determine if nine impartial jurors can be found and seated for subsequent proceedings. Some court analysts believe it is highly unlikely for the process to be called off and the venue changed once the first trial gets under way.
Judging from premature statements and overall behavior, prosecutors may have improperly used their power, consequently tainting public opinion where it matters most, with city residents. For example, court documents show that Marilyn Mosby requested police to target the actual intersection where the Gray incident took place. Following Freddie’s death, the state attorney gave a speech calling for justice for Freddie Gray. Such dishonest behavior plants a guilty verdict in the minds of potential jurors before prosecutors have had a chance to interpret all the evidence. To add insult to injury, Mosby’s husband is a city councilman in the same district where the Gray incident occurred.
A recent monetary settlement with Gray’s relatives may also be an issue. In a surprise decision, the city settled a lawsuit with the Gray family for $6.4 million. The settlement will likely send a guilty message to Baltimore residents. The payoff not only implies that the officers involved in the incident are guilty, it subsequently undermines the legal system by poisoning any jury pool chosen to fairly evaluate the evidence.
Perhaps the biggest argument of unfairness toward these officers is the possibility of further riots, especially if one or more city police officers are found not guilty. Such violence would inevitably pollute subsequent jury pools in the trials that follow. The constant reminder of potential upheavals will no doubt place a damper over the entire case, and almost certainly give rise to serious questions of fairness.
The good news is that the issue is not settled. The judge left open the possibility for a change of venue. Therefore, if the court concludes that a fair trial is unattainable, then in the interest of fairness the judges is duty-bound to move the case to a venue outside of city limits.
Based on what has already transpired in Baltimore, these police officers should not be tried in a venue where fairness is in serious doubt.
Opinion by Lloyd Gardner
Baltimore Sun: Freddie Gray Hearing
Washington Post: A Freddie Gray Primer Who Was he and Why is there so Much Anger”?
Top photo courtesy of The National Guard’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License