Who and what caused Freddie Gray’s death in the back of a Baltimore police transport van is at the heart of the trial of Officer Caesar Goodson, Jr.
Goodson, the van driver, will learn his fate on Thursday, when Judge Barry Williams renders his decision on Goodson’s guilt or innocence in connection with Gray’s case. Goodson is the third officer to go on trial concerning Gray, 25, whose death set off a week of protests and culminated with some businesses left in flames as people angered over Gray’s death took to the streets.
The 46-year-old officer faces seven charges. Amongst those are second-degree depraved-heart murder, involuntary manslaughter, gross and criminal negligence in vehicular manslaughter, and officer misconduct. Like Officer Edward Nero, who was acquitted of the charges against him, Goodson opted for a bench trial.
The state’s case centered on the idea of Gray being taken for a so called “rough ride,” a term used by police to describe how police van drivers allegedly make quick stops and sharp turns in order to rough up a prisoner. The defense suggested that Gray’s death was accidental and Goodson is not to blame for Gray’s injuries or death.
The case began with the judge chastising the prosecution for not turning over evidence. During a pre-trial hearing the state acknowledged it had interviewed Donta Allen, another man who was loaded into the van with Gray. Prosecutors said the conversation was meaningless but Williams disagreed. As a remedy, the judge ordered the prosecution to turn over all evidence to the defense. When they did, it was discovered that the lead police investigator had taken separate notes. This discovery would come back to haunt the prosecution.
Over the course of a week, the prosecution laid out its case with a series of witnesses and video from the incident. The key question was this one: “When was Gray first injured?” There were a total of six stops and the state believes Gray’s injuries began at the fourth and ended at the sixth, which is the Western Police District Headquarters. In court, a video was shown of Goodson running a stop sign and making a U-turn prior to the fourth stop, which is where Porter, who was compelled to testify, found Gray on the van floor. Earlier testimony from Porter’s trial conveyed that Porter helped Gray back to the van’s bench and asks if he needed a medic, to which Gray said that he did. Porter then conveys this to Goodson and the two concur the prisoner would not be able to pass a physical at the jail. Gray is not taken to a hospital; instead a second call comes in for the prisoner van and they proceed to the new location. Porter's case ended in a mistrial. He is scheduled to go back on trial Sept. 6.
One of the key witnesses for the state is Assistant Medical Examiner, Dr. Carol Allan, who told the judge how she came concluded that Gray’s death was a murder. But when cross examined by defense attorney Andrew Graham, Allan denies she ever called it an accident.
Armed with new discovery information and given the latitude to question the lead investigator, the key to the entire case is whether or not it was an accident.
The defense put lead investigator and detective Dawnyell Taylor on the witness stand. She told the court she heard the medical examiner call the incident an accident on two occasions. During cross examination by lead prosecutor Michael Schatzow, the tension was palpable. Taylor said she had a falling out with the assistant prosecutor, but according to Schatzow, Taylor was trying to “sabotage the case.”
Taylor initially told the judge that Dr. Allan described Gray’s death as “an accident.” At the second meeting with Baltimore police brass, Taylor said that Allan called it a “freakish accident.” The prosecution refuted what Taylor reported, noting that she didn’t take notes at either meeting and took formal notes only after both incidents had occurred.
The arrival of Donta Allen in handcuffs and leg irons caused a buzz in the courtroom. The judge wound up allowing as evidence a video deposition Allen gave to homicide detectives. Neither side had wanted to use Allen in any of the previous trials, despite the fact that he was in the police van with Gray and has firsthand knowledge of what transpired. Allen’s statements have changed a number of times and his testimony could be unreliable.
Defense attorney Matthew Fraling asked Allen if he remembered being arrested on April 12, 2015. He denied any memory of what transpired that day. At a separate bench hearing, an attorney produced a transcript of what Allen told investigators, to which Allen responded: “How can this document refresh my memory…I don’t remember anything.” Fraling proceeds to show Allen’s interview by a pair of officers.
The video deposition pointed to several factors favorable to the defense. In it, Allen tells officers he heard Gray “banging his head…it was crazy loud.” He demonstrates to officers on the video. He also says the ride was a “smooth ride.”
In the most telling series of questions with the prosecutor, Allen was asked if he was under the influence of drugs when he gave the deposition. He tells prosecutors he was using “heroin and Xanax.”
During cross examination by Goodson’s defense attorney, things get testy when Allen was asked to read a section where he tells detectives he is “sober and clean…all I had is a Pepsi.” When asked to explain his answer, Allen replied: “I lied!”
Judge Williams grilled both sides about their theories, but left his most blunt criticism for the prosecution during its 40-minute rebuttal of the defense’s theory. State’s Attorney Bledsoe argued that Officer Goodson “breached” his duties by not providing help to Gray. According to Bledsoe, Goodson had four opportunities to secure medical attention for Gray and five chances to seatbelt the prisoner.
Defense Attorney Fraling said that Gray “created a high degree of risk” because of he changed positions in the police van. Fraling urged the judge to come to his conclusions on evidence and not on “speculation and conjecture.”
The defense questioned all of the prosecution’s theories, calling them a “three card monte” card game.
During the rebuttal, Attorney Schatzow was peppered by the judge on the theory of the “rough ride.” Schatzow was asked to provide evidence, so he pointed to the video tape showing Goodson running a stop sign and making sharp turns. However, the judge was suspicious of this evidence.
Outside the court, Tesa Hill-Alston, president of the Baltimore NAACP, called the defense’s theory of Gray’s death “disgusting.” She pointed to the six different stops made by Goodson, adding: “It’s almost as if they were playing a game…for them to ride around that corridor…that shows wrong right there to me.”
A number of attorneys pointed out the problems with this line of closing by the defense, suggesting it would not have played well if this were a jury trial. Attorney Warren Alperstein, who has represented police officers in the past, says the judge’s questioning the state’s theory of the “rough ride” was very telling. Said Alperstein: “The judge kept asking ‘Where is the evidence?’”
Similar types of questions were asked during the case of Nero in which the judge ruled that the prosecution had not met its burden of proof.