The Baltimore police officer who faced the most serious criminal charges over the death of Freddie Gray in police custody has been acquitted.
The case against Caesar Goodson has been viewed as potentially the state’s strongest shot at a conviction, and the defeat deals another blow to both activists’ hope and state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore’s beleaguered chief prosecutor who many hailed as a hero when she announced the charges on 1 May 2015.
Mosby has come under increasing criticism from all sides after her failure to get a conviction lent fuel to her already numerous critics among law enforcement professionals and caused many of the activists who stood behind her prosecution of the officers to rethink their support.
Gray, a 25-year-old African American man, died a week after his arrest from injuries he sustained in police custody, setting off weeks of protest, followed by a riot, a state of emergency and a curfew.
Goodson, who faced second-degree murder and several lesser charges, was driving the van in which Gray sustained a fatal spine injury and faced the most serious charges of any officer, including second-degree depraved heart murder. Throughout the trial, Judge Barry Williams expressed skepticism over the state’s theory that Goodson had killed Gray with a “rough ride”, in which the handcuffed and shackled prisoner was left without a seatbelt in order to bounce around “like a pinball”, according to prosecutors.
Williams rejected the murder charge, along with less serious manslaughter, assault and misconduct in office charges. During trial, the case crumbled over prosecutors’ attempts to prove that Goodson had given Gray a rough ride.
“There has been no credible evidence presented at this trial that the defendant intended any crime to happen,” said Williams. “Seemingly the state wants this court to assume simply because Mr Gray was injured … that the defendant intentionally gave Mr Gray a rough ride.”
The judge did note that failing to seatbelt Gray in the back of the van “may have been a mistake or may have been bad judgment”, but it did not rise to the level of corruption to convict Goodson of criminal misconduct in office.
Mosby, who was not in the court for the reading of Nero’s verdict, shook her head as Williams read the verdict.
Goodson is the third case in which prosecutors have not secured a conviction, which calls the remaining four cases into question.
“At some point does the state’s attorney’s office evaluate the prospects and consider not continuing its prosecution of its remaining officers, particularly given the fact that Goodson was anointed as the most culpable actor among the six officers?” said Warren Alperstein, a former prosecutor who now works in private practice and has been closely observing the case.
But Alperstein warns that dropping the charges might not be an option, now that all of the officers but Goodson have sued the state’s attorney’s office for publicly bringing charges they claim she knew were not valid. “If you choose not to prosecute four other officers remaining as defendants, does that not lend credence to the argument that you’re acknowledging that there wasn’t enough to prosecute?”
After the first trial, of officer William Porter, ended in a hung jury – which requires a retrial – the entire process was delayed for months as higher courts determined whether prosecutors could compel Porter to testify against his fellow officers, putting the case in what Williams called “uncharted territory”.
In the second case, against officer Edward Nero, the prosecutors argued that he was guilty of assault because Gray had been arrested without proper probable cause, making any touching an assault.
Nero was acquitted on all counts and testified for the defense in Goodson’s case, where the deep rift between prosecutors and police in this city was laid bare. During trial, chief deputy state’s attorney Michael Schatzow accused Dawnyell Taylor, the chief detective, of trying to sabotage the case.