A Baltimore judge found the sole officer charged with murder in the death of Freddie Gray not guilty of all charges, leaving prosecutors without a conviction for the third time in the high-profile case that engulfed the city in riots and unrest.
The verdict announced Thursday in the trial of Caesar Goodson Jr. is the second acquittal handed down by Judge Barry G. Williams in the case. The judge last month acquitted the second officer who went to trial in Gray’s arrest. The first officer’s trial ended in a hung jury.
Goodson, 46, drove the van that transported Gray through West Baltimore the morning of April 12, 2015, when the 25-year-old was arrested. Gray suffered a severe neck injury in the back of the van and died a week later.
Gray’s death triggered demonstrations and looting in the city as the nation was already mired in a fevered debate over fatal police encounters involving young black men. The mayor implemented a citywide curfew and the governor called in the National Guard amid the riots.
Ahead of the verdict, a small group of protesters gathered outside the courthouse, holding signs demanding justice for Gray.
A few led chants: “All night, all day, we’re going to fight for Freddie Gray,” and “Indict, convict, send these killer cops to jail. The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”
Goodson faced the most serious charge of the six officers charged in the case.
With with more than 30 witnesses testifying over an eight-day trial, prosecutors attempted to convince Williams that Goodson was culpable for Gray’s death. As the van driver, prosecutors argued, Goodson had ultimate custody and care for Gray but failed to both buckle Gray into the back of the wagon and get him immediate medical attention. They contended Gray got a “rough ride,” bouncing around the back of the wagon with without a seat belt but with his wrists and legs shackled.
“Officer Goodson, as the driver of the wagon in which Freddie Gray was confined, neither insured his safety nor his well-being,” Deputy State’s Attorney Janice Bledsoe said in closing arguments.
Goodson’s attorneys countered that the officer’s decision not to enter the narrow van compartment and put a seat belt on Gray was reasonable because Gray was combative during his arrest. Gray didn’t say he was in pain or show signs of a medical emergency, they said. Prosecutors did not have evidence of a “rough ride” or witnesses who saw him driving erratically, Goodson’s attorneys said.
“The mere fact that harm resulted does not mean that Officer Goodson’s conduct was the cause of that harm,” the officer’s attorney Matthew Fraling said.
Even before the case went to Williams for a verdict, the judge appeared skeptical of the second-degree depraved-heart murder charge. To win that conviction, prosecutors had to prove that Goodson’s actions or lack of actions created a very high risk to Gray’s life and that despite knowing the risks, Goodson acted “with extreme disregard of the life-endangering consequences.”
When the judge considered a motion for a judgement of acquittal before the defense launched its case, he told prosecutors that moving forward with the murder charge was a “close call” even when looking at the evidence in the light most favorable to the state. When considering the verdict, the burden of proof required for a guilty finding – beyond a reasonable doubt – was much higher.
While much of the witness and expert testimony in Goodson’s case mirrored the trial of William Porter, the first officer who went to court, there were also unique moments of drama and legal sparring.
For months, Goodson’s trial was delayed as prosecutors and the defense fought over whether Porter could be forced to testify against his colleague despite awaiting retrial in September. The state’s highest court eventually ruled that Porter must testify since prosecutors have promised not to use his testimony against him at his retrial.
When taking the witness stand in Goodson’s trial for two hours, Porter testified that Gray did not exhibit signs of “immediate medical distress” the day of his April 2015 arrest. But Porter said he told Goodson that Gray should have been taken to a hospital anyway because he wouldn’t be admitted at central booking.
Porter’s testimony was key, since Goodson was the only one of six officers charged who didn’t give a statement to police. Unlike Porter, Goodson did not take the stand in his own defense.
Goodson’s trial also featured sparring between prosecutors and the lead detective on the Gray case. Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow accused Detective Dawnyell Taylor of “sabotaging” the investigation and doctoring notes, while Taylor questioned the integrity of the Bledsoe, Schatzow’s partner on the case, Deputy State’s Attorney Janice Bledsoe.
Taylor was allowed to testify after Williams found prosecutors had committed its fourth discovery violation in the case.
It’s unclear how the verdict in the Goodson’s trial will impact the other the four officers awaiting trial.
The next trial in the case is scheduled for Lt. Brian W. Rice on July 5.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Derek Hawkins, Lyn Bui