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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Freddie Gray Manslaughter Trial Headed to the Jury

BALTIMORE (CN) - Defense attorneys for the first of six Baltimore officers on trial for the death of Freddie Gray rested their case Friday with a police department official who pinned blame for Gray's fate on two officers still awaiting trial.

William Porter, 26, has pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment in connection to Gray's death on April 19.

Throughout the two-week trial, jurors have heard testimony that 25-year-old Gray sustained a fatal spinal cord injury in police custody on April 12 that paralyzed him and left him brain-dead a week later.

Hundreds rioted in Baltimore on the day of Gray's funeral, protesting a culture of police arrogance and excessive force, especially with regard to black arrestees like Gray.

On the morning of Gray's arrest, officers threw him in a police van for a 45-minute ride to the Western District Police Station.

Earlier in Porter's trial, the medical examiner who ruled Gray's death a homicide testified that Gray sustained the injury that killed him somewhere between the second and fourth stops of the six-stop journey.

Porter is accused of contributing to Gray's death by not securing him into the van with a seat belt, and by not immediately summoning medical help for Gray.

A paramedic did not treat Gray until officers swung open the van doors at the police station to find their ward unconscious.

Helena Porter, the officer's mother, was one of four witnesses to testify as to his character Friday, saying her son "gets along well with the community and all the neighbors."

Renea Sommerville, Devon Scott and Angela Gibson echoed the tight-lipped recommendation, calling Porter an upstanding and honest individual with a peaceful demeanor.

Outside the trial, University of Maryland School of Law professor Douglas Colbert criticized the defense for not fully engaging the testimony of the character witnesses.

Colbert said he was surprised to see that fellow officers were not tapped to show how Porter acted as an officer of the law.

Each of the character witnesses spent less than 10 minutes on the witness stand. Most of the questions that the defense attorneys posed resulted in objections from the prosecution that Judge Barry Williams sustained.

The defense rested Friday after calling their last witness, Capt. Justin Reynolds, who testified that ultimate responsibility for Gray lay with the officer who drove the police van, Caesar Goodson, and with the supervising officer, Sgt. Alicia White.

While White also faces a charge of involuntary manslaughter, Goodson is accused of depraved-heart murder, setting him apart from every other officer indicted for Gray's death.

Reynolds said he believed Porter was familiar with Gray before the fateful arrest, something to which Porter himself testified while discussing his two-plus years as a beat cop in the Gilmore Home area of Baltimore's Western District, where poverty, drug and violent crimes are rampant.

The captain said Porter went "beyond what many other officers would have done" when he helped Gray off the floor of the van at the fourth stop and asked him what was wrong.

The testimony is critical to the involuntary-manslaughter charge, which Porter's attorneys say requires the state to prove that Porter's conduct deviated significantly from what another officer would reasonably have done.

Reynolds has sat on departmental trial boards that assess officer violations of general orders and recommends administrative punishment if necessary.

Outside the courthouse, veteran criminal attorney Warren Brown told reporters that Porter's "defense made a compelling case."

"It would be hard to imagine [the jury] would not feel some reasonable doubt," said Warren, who has been observing the trial as a spectator.

Warren also praised the defense's work at undercutting testimony about when Gray suffered the critical injury.

In Porter's turn on the stand Wednesday, he testified that Gray had been able to use his arms and legs, as well as speak at stop four, which would mean Gray had not suffered his injury before that point. The officer did not interact with Gray again until the van arrived at the station.

"It would be hard to say [Porter] acted in with callous disregard for the life of Freddie Gray," said Warren.

Reynolds, the captain, said Porter did the right thing by relaying Gray's request for medical treatment to Sgt. White, his supervisor.

"An officer expects that when they tell a supervisor something, the supervisor is going to act upon that," Reynolds said.

Discretion is necessary for officers working on the streets, Reynolds said, noting that they must sometimes break with general orders for their own safety and wellbeing.

"You have to use common sense," Reynolds said. "It prevails over everything else."

Judge Williams dismissed the jury for the day following lunch and instructed them to return for proceedings Monday morning.

Trial watchers found it odd that Porter's defense failed to present the jury with Donte Allen, a detainee who rode in the wagon with Gray on April 12, but in a separate compartment.

Allen, who had been arrested on suspicion of stealing, told police he heard Gray banging in the van after stop five, before the van arrived at Western District Station.

Defense attorneys had even told the jury during opening statements that they would call Allen to the stand, and Allen spent most of the day Thursday in court.

When the defense rested Friday without having called Allen, there were murmurs of surprise in the courtroom.

Colbert, the law school professor, said he felt Allen was not a credible witness and added nothing for the defense, who had presented a very strong case with expert witnesses that affirmed Porter had acted as a "reasonable officer" would have.

Attorneys argued the final language for instructions to the jury on Friday afternoon.

Closing arguments are scheduled to begin Monday morning.

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