Baltimore City Circuit Court judge Barry Williams ruled Thursday morning that the trials of the six police officers involved in the arrest and fatal transport of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who suffered a severe spinal injury while in police custody, will remain in Baltimore City.
Williams rejected pre-trial motion arguments by defense attorneys that their clients would be unable to get a fair trial in city. Defense attorneys argued that media coverage, statements by Baltimore state’s attorney general Marilyn Mosby, the riots that broke out after Gray’s death, a leak of the medical examiner’s report, as well as the City’s recent $6.4 million civil settlement with Gray’s family, had prejudiced the city’s 622,00 residents—and potential 275,000 jurors—against the six police officers to the point where impounding impartial juries was impossible.
Williams said the defense team’s argument—made by attorney Ivan Bates, representing Sgt. Alicia White in the case—“did not carry the day” and did not reach the burden requiring a change of venue set forth by Maryland’s state constitutions and U.S. Supreme Court.
The Baltimore People’s Power Assembly, which has protested in the past against police brutality, demonstrated in front of the Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse on North Calvert as they had before last week’s hearing.
After the ruling, exuberant demonstrators, a relatively small but vocal group numbering in the dozens shouted, “That trial stays here! The trial stays here!”
Earlier, interim Baltimore City police commissioner Kevin Davis showed up at the peaceful protests at the courthouse. Some demonstrators were not happy to see Davis, chanting, “Commissioner go home!”
“This is Baltimore’s time to get it right. Citizens ought to be able to look into the eyes of the defendants,” said Rev. C. D. Witherspoon. “It’s important that it stays in Baltimore. Just as it was important that Marilyn Mosby be allowed to continue in the case; just as it was important that the charges be allowed to stand.”
University of Maryland law professor Douglas Colbert noted that moving jurisdictions is “rarely ever done.” He called the ruling “critical.”
Prior to the hearing, Colbert said removing the case to another jurisdiction “would almost be an insult to residents of the city.”
“I believe in our jury system more than any other part of our legal system,” Colbert said.
Those sentiments were echoed by Michael Schatzow, the chief deputy state’s attorney for Baltimore City, in rebutting the defense team’s effort to remove the case from the city’s jurisdiction.
Schatzow also noted that an “incredible amount of discretion” remains in the hands of the trial judge as part of the jury selection process.
“It would be insulting to the citizens of Baltimore [to remove the case to another jurisdiction],” Schatzow argued. “We have a very large, diverse citizenship.”
In making his ruling, Williams essentially concurred with Schatzow, saying, “the citizens of Baltimore are not a monolithic group” and had “the integrity and intellect” to form their own opinions—outside of those expressed by city leaders, clergy, and others.
“To presume prejudice is not fair to the defendants, who have a right to be tried in the jurisdiction where the event occurred,” Williams said.
The pre-trial motion hearing today came one day after mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s administration and the City Board of Estimates approved the wrongful death payout to Gray’s family. That move was praised by some for avoiding potentially even costlier and divisive litigation—and criticized as premature by others—who said the settlement would affect jurors and impact the officers’ ability to receive a fair trial in Baltimore.
In a statement released after the wrongful death settlement was announced, Lt. Gene Ryan, president of Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge #3, called the decision by city officials “obscene and without regard to the fiduciary responsibility owed to the taxpaying citizens of the City.”
Ryan also said the settlement “threatens to interrupt any progress made toward restoring the relationship between members of the Baltimore Police Department and the Baltimore City government.
Rawlings-Blake said the settlement agreement “should not be interpreted as a judgment on the guilt or innocence of the officers facing trial.” She also said that along with potentially saving taxpayers money, the settlement would avoid “protracted litigation that would only make it more difficult for our city to heal.”
A trial date in the Gray case has been set for Oct. 13, though it likely will be pushed back after Williams’ ruled against a motion by prosecutors to try three of the officers together last week.
The six officers are currently set to be tried separately. None have been required to be in attendance at the pre-trial motion hearings.
Baltimore police officer Caesar Goodson faces the most serious charge—second-degree “depraved-heart” murder—in the death of Gray, who was fatally injured while being transported in a van driven by Goodson. Lt. Brian Rice, Sgt. Alicia White and officer William Porter face manslaughter charges. All six of the officers, who also include Edward Nero and Garret Miller, have been charged with second-degree assault, misconduct and reckless endangerment.