Highest-ranking officer charged in Freddie Gray case acquitted after bench trial
BALTIMORE, Md. — A judge found a Baltimore police officer not guilty in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray.
Lt. Brian Rice was the highest-ranking police officer charged in the case. Gray suffered a broken neck in a police transport van on April 12, 2015.
Gray’s death ushered in a resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests across the country. The recent deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have popularized the movement once again.
Rice was one of the three officers on bike patrol the morning Gray was arrested, and he was the officer who put Gray into the transport wagon after he was shackled — failing to fasten his seat belt, according to the testimony of other officers.
Rice faced several charges, including involuntary manslaughter, second-degree reckless assault/reckless endangerment and misconduct.
Same judge acquitted Nero, Goodson
Opting for a bench trial over a jury trial, Rice’s case will be heard by Judge Barry Williams — the same judge who acquitted Officer Edward Nero and Officer Caesar Goodson on all charges related to Gray’s death.
Of the six officers charged, Goodson faced the most serious charges — including second-degree depraved-heart murder. Legal experts have said Goodson’s acquittal could set the tone for the four officers still awaiting trial.
“It does not bode well for prosecution,” CNN legal analyst Danny Cevallos said.
Williams’ verdict in Goodson’s case “sends a message to the public and to the courts and the prosecution that if you can’t convict beyond a reasonable doubt as to a high charge like murder, what does it say about lesser crimes?”
Final witnesses: Medical experts
The final two defense witnesses in Rice’s trial were medical experts who both said it was clear Gray’s injuries happened all at once, and happened while the van was on its way to the final stop.
Dr. Matthew Ammerman, a neurosurgeon, concluded that Gray’s neck injury occurred immediately before the van’s final stop. At the earlier van stops, Gray was talking, and there were no signs of a broken neck.
The testimony is key to the defense’s theory that Gray didn’t need help at the van’s earlier stops.
The state argued Gray was injured earlier and he got progressively worse during the van ride and needed immediate medical help.
Rice did not take the stand but acknowledged in court he understood he had the option to testify.
Other officers testify
Officer Nero, who was found not guilty, and Officer William Porter, whose trial ended in a hung jury in December, were called to the stand to testify.
Nero testified that Rice put Gray into the transport van after he was shackled. He said Rice pulled him by his arms, left him face down on the floor, and then climbed or slid over him to get out.
Responding to questions from the defense, Nero said Gray was flailing and at times resisting. “The floor was deemed a better position,” he said, because more force would have had to be used to get Gray onto a bench.
Porter, who will be retried in September, was forced to testify under immunity granted by the state.
He described Gray’s position in the van, recalled his request for help and explained how he “assisted” him to the van’s bench.
He asked Gray if he wanted to go to the hospital, and was told “yes,” according to Porter’s account.
When questioned by the defense, Porter said at that point Gray was speaking to him, making eye contact, and did not show any obvious signs of injury.
The defense was not allowed to question Porter about earlier van stops since the state hadn’t mentioned them. However, they were allowed to use Porter’s prior testimony as evidence in their defense; specifically, comments about the crowd in the area where Gray was arrested, in which Porter described the need for “crowd control.”
Two charges dropped
Earlier this month, Judge Williams granted a defense motion to throw out one of the charges against Rice, saying the state failed to show that he committed assault.
Prosecutors had argued Gray was assaulted and the instrument of the assault was the police van. However, Williams noted the state didn’t prove that Rice ever had control of the vehicle or collaborated with the driver to harm Gray.
Earlier in the trial, a charge of misconduct in office against Rice for making an arrest without probable cause was dropped by the state after they said Rice was not directly involved in Gray’s arrest.