A Baltimore judge this morning found the highest-ranking officer charged in Freddie Gray’s arrest and death not guilty on all counts, dealing a devastating blow to prosecutors, who have now tried four of the six officers initially indicted without winning a conviction.
Judge Barry G. Williams acquitted Lt. Brian Rice, 42, of manslaughter, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office after a week-long bench trial, finding that Rice didn’t commit a crime when he loaded Gray into a police transport van without seat-belting him. Gray suffered a fatal neck injury as he was being taken to a police station.
The verdict renews questions about whether the state should move forward with charges against the remaining officers or drop them altogether. Two of Rice’s co-defendants were recently acquitted, and a third is awaiting retrial after a jury deadlocked in his case in December. Another two officers are set to be tried in the coming months.
Police arrested Gray in West Baltimore the morning of April 12, 2015, after he ran from officers on bike patrol. Rice and other officers shackled his wrists and legs and put him in the prisoner compartment of a police van without restraining him. Prosecutors say he fell and struck his head. He died a week later.
Gray’s death became a flashpoint in an already roiling national debate over racial profiling and the deaths of black men in police custody. Peaceful demonstrations in Baltimore gave way to riots and looting in the days after the 25-year-old’s funeral, prompting officials to impose a citywide curfew and call in the National Guard to restore order. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced charges against the officers in a nationally televised news conference, saying she would seek justice for the city’s young people.
Rice’s trial played out against a backdrop of national tension and mourning over the recent police shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana and the racially motivated shootings in Dallas that killed five police officers this month.
Prosecutors sought to show that Rice, as the senior officer on the scene, bore the responsibility for Gray’s death. They said he was well aware of department policy requiring officers to seat-belt all detainees but chose to ignore it. In closing arguments, prosecutor Janice Bledsoe said Rice’s actions were deliberate and that the lieutenant wanted to “punish and humiliate” Gray for resisting arrest.
Defense attorneys said Gray’s “belligerent” behavior that morning made it too dangerous for officers to climb into the van’s cramped prisoner compartment and seat-belt him. They said that a crowd of angry onlookers had surrounded the van and that officers rushed to leave the scene because they feared for their safety. Rice’s decisions were “100 percent reasonable” given the circumstances, his attorneys said.
Nearly all of the 16 witnesses who testified had taken the stand in trials against other officers charged in the case.
Prosecutors suffered setbacks throughout the proceedings. Before the trial began, the judge hit the state with a discovery violation, saying prosecutors waited until the last minute to provide the defense with some 4,000 pages of documents related to Rice’s training that they planned to introduce as evidence. The documents have not been made public, so it is unclear how the state planned to use them against the lieutenant.
Rice went into the trial facing five charges, but just before op
ening statements, prosecutors dropped a misconduct charge related to Gray’s arrest without explanation. Later, after prosecutors rested their case, the judge dismissed a count of second-degree assault, saying there was not enough evidence to let it go forward. In the same ruling, the judge signaled that he was on the verge of tossing the reckless endangerment charge but said he was obligated at that stage to view it in the light most favorable to the state.
A gag order from the judge remains in effect, barring prosecutors and defense attorneys from speaking publicly about the case.
Last month, officer Caesar Goodson Jr. was acquitted on murder, manslaughter and other counts after an eight-day bench trial. Goodson, the van driver, faced the most serious charges in the case. In May, officer Edward M. Nero was acquitted of assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office, also after a bench trial. Officer William G. Porter is awaiting retrial in September after a jury was unable to reach a decision in December.
Officer Garret E. Miller’s trial is set for the end of July, and Sgt. Alicia D. White’s is set for October.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Derek Hawkins, Lynh Bui