Prior to the acquittal of Baltimore Police Officer Edward Nero on four counts in the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams pointed to the many of the holes in the state’s case against the Officer Nero. Although risky, Nero’s decision to go with a bench trial proved fortuitous in hindsight.
Nero’s trial was not a case about emotion. It hinged on what could be proven in court. The bicycle officer was charged with second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and two counts of misconduct in office. Judge Williams pointed to various pieces of evidence presented to him by prosecutors and came to conclusions based in law. Each time Williams said he “rejected the state’s arguments,” he would add: “an error in judgment is not a crime.”
Gray family Attorney William “Billy” Murphy who watched the verdict pointed out how the judge went point by point to explain how he reached his conclusions. “We ought to respect how he did his job. We need to respect his devotion to the process. We ought to thank God, there are judges out here who can resist the heavy public pressure that was brought to bear in the outcome of this case.”
But other responses to the verdict were more emotional.
“No officer should be in the street, especially in an African American neighborhood, chasing young Black boys and men, and not have ample training to do the things they are doing,” said Baltimore NAACP President Tesa Hill-Alston. But her feelings may fall on deaf ears if the trial centers an legal causation as the Nero trial did.
Nero’s actual participation in the trial was minimal at best with defense attorneys relying on experts and witnesses, in particular Officer Garret Miller who corroborated Nero’s story. Miller said in testimony that it was he alone who physically arrested Gray and that Nero only helped lift his feet to place him into the police van. He was ordered to testify and his testimony cannot be used against him in his own upcoming trial.
With Monday’s ruling behind them, prosecutors have even more difficult cases to present.
The next case begins on June 6 with Officer Caesar Goodson, the driver of the police van that carried Gray. Prosecutors say Gray’s fatal injuries occurred while in the van. It is unclear if Goodson’s defense will opt for a jury or a bench trial. This too can be risky. Juries can be unpredictable. They can take in emotion and they do not necessarily know the law, plus it only takes one juror to block a conviction. Conversely, a judge knows the law and will analyze how that applies to the evidence.
On Sept. 6, the re-trial of Officer William Porter is set to begin. His first trial ended in a hung jury and when it starts again, prosecutors won’t be able to use information gleaned in the Nero case nor can they use statements made in the other cases. Judge Williams has also cautioned the state about using attorneys in previous cases especially in the Porter case.
Meanwhile, each of the defense attorneys for the other cases were present for this case and its verdict. Defense Attorney Warren Alperstein, who has defended police officers in the past, but is not part of this trial, was circumspect on what might happen going forward. “Each case is different and will stand on its own merits,” he said.