Van Driver Acquitted on Freddie Gray’s Death

     BALTIMORE (CN) — The future appears bleak for prosecutors after the police officer driving the van in which Freddie Gray was last conscious won a full acquittal Thursday.
     A small group of protesters chanted outside Courthouse East in downtown Baltimore this afternoon after Judge Barry Williams found Caesar Goodson Jr., 46, not guilty.
     Goodson had been driving the police van that delivered 25-year-old Gray unresponsive to the police station on April 12, 2015.
     Accused of second-degree depraved-heart-murder, Goodson faced the most serious charges of all six officers implicated in Gray’s death. The officer is black, as was Gray.
     Viewed as a must-win for prosecutors, the case hinged on the theory that Goodson gave Gray a “rough ride” as payback for Gray resisting arrest.
     Against CCTV footage of Goodson rolling through a stop sign and taking a wide right turn, however, Williams found the evidence lacking.
     Goodson is the second officer to be found not guilty on charges related to the case.
     Williams acquitted Officer Edward Nero of misdemeanor charges last month.
     With four trials still to go, observers say prosecutors must pay close attention to how the judge interpreted the evidence.
     “The state has taken a very aggressive approach in going after conviction of these officers and there is no question that no matter what they believed happened to Gray,” David Jaros, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said in an interview. “They need to have the evidence to prove that.”
     It could be time for a new strategy, said Douglas Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.
     “The prosecution is going to have to take a very close look at the evidence they have and decide if they are going to proceed along the same route considering the outcome of the latest two cases,” Colbert said.
     In Goodson’s trial, a prosecution witness who testified to the rough-ride theory admitted under cross-examination that he did not see any evidence of the erratic driving.
     Judge Williams had been critical of the “rough ride” during proceedings and told the court Thursday that the timeline of Gray’s injuries remains unclear.
     During a nearly 40-minute reading of his decision Thursday, Williams said the state “failed to meet its burden” to present enough evidence to back its assertions.
     Williams called “rough ride” was an “inflammatory term” that is “not to be taken lightly,” and said the state had failed to prove such a ride was given to Gray.
     For the judge, Gray’s injuries by themselves did not prove the charges against Goodson.
     “As the trier of fact, the court can’t simply let things speak for themselves,” Williams said.
     To paint Goodson as directly causing the injuries Gray sustained, prosecutors had tried to show that the officer drove the van in a reckless manner, causing Gray to be thrown around in the back of the van.
     Though Gray was not secured in the van with a seatbelt, Goodson’s defense included testimony that Gray was heard kicking and banging inside the van after resisting arrest.
     Gray made requests for medical attention during two of the six stops between his arrest and the final stop at the Western District Police Station where he was found unresponsive and was not breathing.
     The state said tried to show that there were five opportunities for Goodson to get Gray help, but that he failed to take him to a hospital or call for a medic.
     Williams told the court there were a number of “equally plausible scenarios” for when Gray was injured in the van. He talked through five such scenarios and why evidence showed they were plausible.
     Williams repeatedly cited expert witness testimony, including that of assistant medical examiner Carol Allen, who ruled Gray’s death a homicide, as well as that of neurosurgeon Morris Soriano, a prosecution witness.
     “Both experts opined that the injuries were of the nature that symptoms could occur over time, and that the injuries were not of a nature that would have prohibited Mr. Gray from talking and moving his head and shoulders,” Williams said.
     The judge also noted his reliance on the testimony of forensic pathologist Jonathan Arden and neurosurgeon Joel Winer.
     The defense witnesses had “concluded that … the injuries were catastrophic and likely occurred sometime after stop five,” Williams said.
     Williams found that Gray’s “injury manifested itself internally.”
     “That is one of the key issues here,” he said. “If the doctors are not clear as to what would be happening at this point in time, how would the average person or officer without medical training know?”
     The judge conceded that Goodson’s failure to secure Gray with a seat belt was at the van’s fourth stop amounted to neglect of duty.
     Finding that the failure did not rise to the level of criminal negligence, however, Williams said it “may have been a mistake, or may have been a bad judgment.”
     Williams emphasized that the state faced a much higher burden to prove criminal negligence, compared to civil negligence.
     The city of Baltimore did agree to a $6.4 million settlement with the family of Freddie Gray months after his death.
     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.
     The epicenter of the unrest was focused in the area where Gray was arrested after running from police unprovoked.
     Police allege Gray was in possession of an illegal spring loaded knife when he was placed under arrest.
     The trial in the majority black city of 620,000 lasted eight days and featured 21 prosecution and eight defense witnesses.
     Though Goodson won the second acquittal on charges related to Gray’s death, he is the third officer to go on trial. The first officer, William Porter, must be tried this September. His original proceedings ended in a hung jury last year.
     Porter had been compelled to testify against Goodson but has immunity as those statements in his upcoming trial.
     Illustration by Benjamin Rogers
     

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