One of six Baltimore police officers charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray was found not guilty by a judge Monday morning in one of six heated trials that followed the unrest in the city a year ago.
Officer Edward Nero, who faced four misdemeanor charges, second degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct while in office was acquitted in a bench trial by Circuit Court Judge Barry G. Williams.
“The state had not met the burden of proof,” said Williams as he read the verdict. An emotional Nero received hugs from his defense team, family and fellow officers as the judge set him free.
Gray, 25, was arrested April 12, 2015 and suffered severe spinal cord injuries while riding in the back of a police van after being arrested. He died a week later and news of his death set off days of rioting and looting in parts of Baltimore.
Nero, 30, who was one of six Baltimore police officers charged in the case, waived his right to a jury trial, opting instead to argue his case before Williams.
The trial lasted six days with prosecution calling 14 witnesses and defense attorneys calling seven. While Nero's lawyers characterized the bike cop as an officer doing his job and who barely touched Gray in the process of arresting him.
The possible turning point of the trial was when fellow bike cop Garrett Miller was placed on the stand. In his testimony, he said that he alone physically arrested Gray. He said that he placed him in handcuffs at first and only later did Nero help place Gray in a police van by helping to lift his feet.
He was compelled to testify by Williams in an earlier hearing, but granted immunity in his own trial, which begins in July.
“There is no question public opinion had nothing to with his decision, and he stood tall with what he thought was right…and not what the community might speculate was just,” said Attorney William “Billy” Murphy who represented the Gray Family in a civil suit.
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.
In addition to Miller's trial, four others are scheduled, including that of Officer Ceasar Goodson, the driver of the van in which Gray was injured beginning June 6. Brian Rice will face a courtroom July 5; William Porter, Sept. 6 and Sgt. Alicia White, Oct. 13.
In a statement, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake said that Nero will still have to face an administrative review. But she also called for calm in the aftermath of the verdict.
"We once again ask citizens to be patient and to allow the entire process to come to a conclusion," she said. " In the case of any disturbance in the city, we are prepared to respond."
Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, echoed the statement, saying he thanks Williams for his service.
“Justice has always relied on trust in the judicial process, and that is what I call on all of Baltimore’s residents to do because there will be more trials in the death of Mr. Freddie Gray," said Cummings. "We cannot control the outcome of any of these trials, but what we can control is our work to continue healing our community."