The lasting image in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray of Baltimore is his city on fire. All that is about to change with the trials of six officers who are charged with his death, in which jury selection begins on Monday. The charges for each officer varies. It includes some lesser charges and also serious charges such as false arrest, manslaughter, and a technical term called “depraved heart” (the equivalent of second degree murder). Each of the officers will have separate trails that will likely extend to next April, the anniversary of Gray’s death.
The first of these trials is for Officer William Porter. He is charged with manslaughter, second degree assault, misconduct, and reckless endangerment. Officer Porter has told police investigators he looked in on Gray in the transport van. During the stop he asked Gray, if he was alright. Gray asked for assistance but Officer Porter, according to reports, did not provide assistance. The police officer told the driver of the police van there may be problems with the suspect. This will be a highlight of his case. There is a recording of Porter’s interrogation and it will be allowed in court. His attorneys have also indicated he will take the stand in his own defense.
The presiding officer in this case is Judge Barry Williams, who has had to act as referee while both the Prosecution and Defense have argued over evidence, procedure and the selection of jurors. In some of his rulings he:
· Ruled against the defense for wanting to move the case out of Baltimore.
· Chastised the Prosecution for failing to turn over evidence.
· Will allow two civilian (cellphone) videos of Gray being put into a police van.
· Officer Porter will be afforded an opportunity to provide character witnesses.
· Has imposed a gag order on all court participants.
· Jurors will be anonymous and not be sequestered.
This last ruling is important. The defense argued jurors would face intense pressure to convict because of prior incidents, but Williams rejected this idea. The defense also argued jurors should be held in a hotel with no cellphones, limited television, and supervised monitoring with relatives. In ruling against sequestration the judge has called it the equivalent of being in jail, but agreed only the parties in the trial will know the names of the jurors.
The first challenge for court will be in selecting jurors. It’s not lost on police, the defense or prosecution that Baltimore jurors are anything but typical. In previous cases jurors have found wrongdoing by police and aren’t swayed by the argument, “the police are always right.”
There will be attempts by both sides to get a pool of jurors who favor their perspective. It’s what you want to watch doing the first couple of weeks. They’ll need to get 12 jurors and the number of alternates has not been established. Jurors will be asked to fill out a questionnaire but at this time the court will not distribute it to the public.
In ruling against the change of venue for the trial Williams has acknowledged there is a strong likelihood jurors will have heard of the case and the rioting. To sit on this jury he will ask if they have made up their minds (if they have, they won’t be seated). Then he will ask if they can set aside what they have seen and heard, listen to evidence and render a verdict.