Update: Officer Edward Nero was found not guilty on all counts by Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams on Monday morning. Click here for the latest from JETMag.com.
The nation waits with bated breath to learn the fate of Baltimore police officer Edward Nero, who was one of six officers involved in the detainment of Freddie Gray, who later died in police custody. Nero’s fate is now in the hands of Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams, who likely will issue a verdict today. Here is what you need to know.
Nero is charged with second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and two counts of misconduct in office. The prosecution paints a narrative essentially alleging that the actions of Nero weren’t warranted. Conversely, Nero’s defense is pushing the narrative of a policeman doing his job, an action that doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of being a crime. For the last two weeks, each side has brought experts to the stand; experts with intimate knowledge on police policy and procedures.
Several facts were agreed to by all parties: The area where Gray was chased was a known drug area, and therefore known for high crime; Officer training includes ‘general orders’; The police department conducted an audit to see if officers were buckling suspects into seat belts.
Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow has been using a strategy that can be described as “show and tell.” Armed with CCTV video surveillance footage, the state prosecutor brought in police officers and experts to explain what they were seeing and hearing on the video footage, which shows the initial stop where Gray is cornered by police. Video also shows the second stop, where police removed metal cuffs from Gray before replacing them with plastic cuffs and leg irons.
To illustrate how a police van arrest works, a separate video was shown where a police recruit in civilian clothes is treated as if he has been arrested. He appears to be same height and weight of Gray. The officer-turned-actor is placed in handcuffs and led into the van. He slides along the van bench without a seat belt. He is then asked to lay face down on the floor and try to get up on his own. It takes him several minutes for him to do so.
This video didn’t play well with court observer and Baltimore NAACP President Tessa Hill-Alston. “Freddie was injured when he was put in that van,” says Hill-Alston. “He couldn’t have done the things demonstrated that the cadet did.”
The highlight of the trial, so far, was the testimony of Nero’s partner, fellow bicycle officer Garrett Miller. In an unusual move, Miller was compelled to testify and then granted immunity for his own trial, which begins in July. This is the first time Maryland has allowed a defendant who is facing trial in a similar case to be deposed on the stand.
Miller revealed several items during his testimony. According to Miller, it was him alone who physically arrested Gray. He testified that he—Miller–placed Gray in handcuffs during the first stop. Then, Miller said that at the second stop he removed the metal cuffs from Gray’s hands and replaced them with plastic cuffs. Miller also placed Gray in leg irons. During questioning Miller says that all Nero did was assist in putting Gray in the van by lifting Gray’s feet.
It was also revealed for the first time why no one questioned the need for a chase. According to Miller, no one questioned the foot chase because they were “keeping the key clear” — a reference to not talking over one another on the radio.
Lastly, although Nero was never heard from directly on the stand, the court did hear a recorded video interview between him and police investigators. Through this interview we hear Nero describe his version of events. Nero’s repeated use of the word “we,” according to the prosecution, bolsters their belief that Nero’s participation in the events that lead to Gray’s death was as more than a passive bystander.
Nero’s defense attorney, Marc Zayon, used examples from a number of former and current police officers to drive home the point that many of the procedures used by Nero were “standard operating procedure.” Former Charlottesville, Va., Police Chief Timothy Longo, Jr. was asked to explain training tactics for the Baltimore Police Department, classes that he taught for 18 years. He talked about “general orders,” or rules in place for the police department, and states that officers are given discretion while in the field.
Sergeant Robert Himes, who trained Nero on using his mountain bike, drove home the point that “he never belted a prisoner in a van.” This was a repetitive mantra from a number of policemen who took the stand.
Michelle Martin, an assistant attorney general in Maryland, was the only non police officer called by the defense. Prior to her appointment to her current position, she taught legal classes to police recruits. The defense focused in on so called “Terry stops.” This refers to a legal case from 1968, Terry v. Ohio, where it was found that police can detain an individual without probable cause. Rules now exist detailing how long an individual can be detained without being charged with a crime, what kinds of information police need to collect during a stop, and if the stop violates the Fourth Amendment.
Martin describes a “Terry stop” as a brief encounter on a suspicion of a crime being committed. She tells the judge that new recruits were tested on the rules behind making such stops.
Nero’s decision to ask for a “bench trial” rather than a jury trial received good reviews from outside counsel. Attorney Warren Brown, who often works as a defense attorney, said: “I think it favors the prosecution theoretically, because you only have to convince one person beyond a reasonable doubt.” University of Maryland Law Professor Douglass Colbert agrees, especially in the case of a police officer as a defendant. “The strategy of choosing a judge has proven to be a tried and true successful strategy,” she says.
Inside the courtroom, the dual role the judge plays was especially telling during closing arguments. Usually, at the end of a court trial, each side lays out all the details of their case without challenge. That was not the case in this closing. The judge aggressively peppered each side with questions about their facts. It frustrated the attorneys, who were under a time limit. Williams did allow them to extend their remarks because of the questions.
The judge didn’t hold back, grilling even Prosecutor Janice Bledsoe over her office’s decision to apply a charge of assault. “When does the assault begin?” the judge asked. Bledsoe didn’t appear to be ready for that question, but she eventually answered it. Then the judge asked: “Is it a crime when there is an arrest and no probable cause?” Reluctantly, Bledsoe said “yes.”
Zayon, who represents Nero, wasn’t immune from the judge’s scrutiny. Zayon was arguing for the need for discretion on the part of police officers when Williams interrupted: “They [police officers] are supposed to follow general orders?”
Zayon also reluctantly said “Yes.”
Unlike a jury, the judge knows the law and will apply it in this case. Some observers believe the delay in the verdict until Monday is a direct result of the Maryland-based Preakness , which was Saturday. As for Monday’s actions, sheriff’s deputies will cordon off the area around the courthouse in order to keep protesters away as Baltimore and the nation await the verdict in this case.