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There have been three trials and so far three failed prosecutions in the case against six Baltimore police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody last year.
This week a fourth trial, of Lt. Brian Rice, the highest ranking among the officers, is set to begin. So far one officer’s trial ended in a hung jury and two others were acquitted on all charges. Rice has opted for a bench trial, so far a winning strategy used by two of the officers who preceded him, both of whom were cleared in Gray’s killing.
From the outset the Gray case has been fraught with emotion, of great let-down for Gray’s family and their legion of supporters and great relief for the officers who’ve been cleared in his death. With each trial and each failed conviction, the balance of justice in Baltimore seems to be teetering further out of reach for those who view Gray’s death in the prism of historical state-sanctioned violence against African-Americans and the abstract violence of court lenience for police.
In April 2015 police chased down and arrested Gray after he made eye-contact with an officer on a bike patrol in what officials have described as a high-crime and drug area. The officers then handcuffed and shackled Gray and loaded him into the back of a police van without securing his seat belt. During the ride to jail Gray suffered a severed spine. He died days later.
Prosecutors say Gray’s death was a result of a so-called “rough ride,” in which Gray was intentionally left un-belted and then the victim of violent stops and turns. In the days following Gray’s death the city erupted in protests and rioting that left many buildings burned and other property damaged.
When Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that her office would file charges against the six officers involved in Gray’s arrest and death, it was seen by many as a victory. Police officers are rarely ever charged in the deaths of people who die in their custody. Yet, even fewer are ever successfully prosecuted on those charges.
The charges against the six officers varied from misconduct in office, assault and manslaughter to depraved-heart murder, a form of second-degree murder.
Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., the driver of the police van, faced the most serious charge, depraved-heart murder, and if convicted faced up to 30 years in prison. But Goodson was acquitted on all charges last month.
Observers say Goodson’s acquittal likely signals the improbability that any of the remaining officers will be convicted on the various lesser charges they face.
Lt. Rice ordered the bike patrol officer to chase Gray and later helped load him into the police van. He has been charged with reckless endangerment, two counts of misconduct in office, two counts of second-degree assault and involuntary manslaughter. Rice has pleaded not-guilty on all counts.
Rice, like Officers Goodson and Edward Nero before him, opted for a bench trial rather than face a jury. On Thursday, Rice will join his defense team and prosecutors before Judge Barry Williams, who skewered prosecutors in the Goodson case for their lack of evidence to uphold their “rough ride” claims.
“The state said to the world, it was a rough ride,” Judge Williams said at the end of last month’s trial of Officer Goodson. “Where’s your evidence?”