News & Politics

Police Van Driver Acquitted of All Charges in Freddie Gray Death

Officer Caesar Goodson, one of six Baltimore city police officers charged in connection to the death of Freddie Gray, arrives at a courthouse before receiving a verdict in his trial in Baltimore, Thursday, June 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The Baltimore cop who was facing the most serious charges for the death of Freddie Gray was acquitted on all charges this morning. Of the six Baltimore police officers who were charged in Gray’s death, only Officer Caesar Goodson, the police van driver, was accused of murder. Prosecutors charged him with second-degree “depraved heart” murder, which carries up to 30 years in jail.  They said that Goodson should have known that Gray was in distress when he checked on him during his 45-minute ride in the police van. The 25-year-old Gray was unresponsive with a broken neck when they arrived at the station. Prosecutors  argued that Goodson’s failure to call a medic amounted to murder.

Gray was fatally injured after officers bound his hands and feet and Goodson left him unprotected by a seat belt that prosecutors say would have kept him from slamming into the van’s metal walls.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams delivered his verdict after hearing five days of testimony in the non-jury trial. He also found Goodson not guilty of manslaughter, assault, misconduct in office, and reckless endangerment.

Protests and rioting after Gray’s death on April 19, 2015 set the city on fire, forcing Maryland to bring in the National Guard. The unrest forced the city’s mayor to abandon her re-election campaign, and the Department of Justice opened an investigation into allegations of widespread police abuse.

Prosecutors said Goodson was criminally negligent when he failed to buckle Gray into a seat belt or call for medical aid after Gray indicated that he wanted to go to a hospital. But Goodson wouldn’t talk to investigators or take the stand at trial, leaving the state with slim evidence of intent to harm.

The acquittal of Goodson, 46, is perhaps the most significant blow to State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s efforts to hold police accountable for Gray’s death.

The prosecution failed to convince Judge Williams that Goodson had given Gray a “rough ride,” intentionally leaving him unbuckled “to bounce him around in the back of the van,” an argument they “all but abandoned” by closing arguments.

Goodson’s attorney Matthew Fraling fiercely rejected the allegations, telling the judge that Goodson was a “gentle” officer who didn’t buckle him in because Gray was exhibiting “violent and erratic” behavior, citing witness testimony that he was making the wagon shake back and forth by kicking and flailing inside.

Fraling also said Gray said yes when Porter asked if he wanted to go to a hospital only because Gray hoped to avoid jail.

“They have failed to cobble together any type of case with reasonable inferences, let alone evidence,” he said. “The mere fact that harm resulted doesn’t mean the Officer Goodson’s conduct is the cause of that harm.”

The same judge also acquitted Officer Edward Nero of misdemeanor charges last month, and declared a mistrial after a jury failed to agree on manslaughter and other charges against Officer William Porter last December. Porter’s retrial is set for September and three other officers have not been tried. Legal experts considered Goodson’s case to be Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s best case for a guilty verdict in Freddie Gray’s death.

Meanwhile, Mosby and Maj. Sam Cogen of the sheriff’s office (the person who signed the charging documents) are facing defamation lawsuits from all of the officers except Goodson. The officers are saying the criminal charges amount to false and damaging information.

The verdict sparked a protest outside the courthouse.

Via the Baltimore Sun:

A few dozen protesters were gathered outside the courthouse as the verdict was read. One, who protested silently with half of her face painted white, carried a sign that read, “They killin’ us alive legally.”

Tawanda Jones, an activist whose brother, Tyrone West, died in police custody in 2013, said she feared for her community.

“This is going to get worse now,” she said. “They just proved black lives don’t matter. We scream like they matter, but they don’t.

Janea Rogers, 38, watched a half-built senior center near her East Baltimore home burn down during last April’s unrest. After hearing the verdict, she said she fears that the tension that led to that day’s events still remains.

“What they don’t understand is that we in the black community will not trust cops anymore,” Rogers said as she stood outside the courthouse with her two children, Sherrod, 13, and Mystique, 17. “We’re afraid now. I have to tell my children to be on their guard around cops because they might kill them and get away with it.”

Local officials, hoping to stave off destructive riots like the ones seen last year, are calling for patience and calm in the wake of the verdict. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had nothing to say about giving protesters a “place to destroy” this time around.

“I am proud that we as a community have come together to move our city forward over the past year,” she said. “I know the citizen of Baltimore will continue to respect the judicial process and the ruling of the court.”

State Sen. Catherine Pugh, the Democratic nominee to be Baltimore’s next mayor, said that while protests “are a vital part of democracy,” she urged any demonstrations to be peaceful.

“I ask the citizens of Baltimore to continue to be patient as the process continues to move forward,” she said in a statement. “Although people may disagree with the verdict, it is important to respect each other and to respect our neighborhoods and our communities.”

Aides to Gov. Larry Hogan said the National Guard is standing by, and could be activated should the governor declare a state of emergency.

“Governor Hogan continues to respect the legal process, as well as the court’s decision,” Hogan press secretary Shareese Churchill said in a statement. “Over the past year, the people of Baltimore City have made tremendous progress in rebuilding their communities and businesses. Our administration will continue to support Baltimore’s leadership and citizens in their ongoing efforts to move forward from the events of last year.”