Baltimore police lieutenant acquitted in Freddie Gray case
Baltimore prosecutors on Monday failed for the fourth time to secure a conviction against a city police officer for the death of black detainee Freddie Gray, as a lieutenant was cleared of all charges.
The acquittal of Lieutenant Brian Rice renews questions about the prospects for the remaining cases stemming from the death of Gray, who suffered a fatal neck injury in April 2015 after he was bundled into the back of a police transport van.
Police union officials have called on prosecutors to drop the charges against three officers still awaiting trial in the case, which triggered protests and rioting in the mainly black city and stoked a national debate about how police treat minorities.
Tensions flared anew this month with the deaths of African-American men at the hands of police in Minnesota and Louisiana. The controversy took a tragic turn when eight police officers were shot dead in apparent reprisal attacks staged by lone black gunmen in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Rice, 42, the highest-ranking officer charged in the Gray case, was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and misconduct on Monday following a bench trial.
Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams, who oversaw a non-jury trial at Rice's request, said prosecutors did not prove that Gray died as a result of Rice's failure to secure him with a seat belt.
In a statement, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked the community to respect the judicial process during "a very difficult time for our city."
The scene outside the courthouse in Baltimore on Monday was calm, with only a handful of protesters.
Rice was the fourth of six officers to stand trial in the case. Williams previously acquitted Officers Edward Nero and Caesar Goodson Jr., both of whom were in court on Monday. Goodson, the driver of the van, had faced the most serious counts, including a second-degree murder charge.
Officer William Porter faces a September retrial after a jury deadlocked.
In addition to Porter's retrial, Officer Garrett Miller is scheduled for trial later this month, while Sergeant Alicia White's trial is set for October. Porter and White face manslaughter among their charges, while Miller is charged with assault and other crimes.
Warren Alperstein, a Baltimore defense attorney who attended the trial as a spectator, said he was "not surprised by the verdict whatsoever."
"At the end of the day, the state may have to say we're cutting our losses and moving on," he said.
But Doug Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland who has followed the cases, said there is still value in having brought the prosecutions, even if they are unsuccessful.
"The police departments are now on notice that the legal community stands ready to prosecute in these types of cases," he said. "Hopefully this will be the last time anyone suffers the kind of fate that Freddie Gray did."
Prosecutors and defense lawyers in the case are barred from commenting by a gag order from Williams.
Rice, who is white, ordered two officers on bicycle to chase Gray, 25, when he fled unprovoked in a high-crime area.
Prosecutors said Rice acted negligently by failing to secure Gray with a seat belt in the van.
But defense lawyers said Rice made a reasonable split-second decision while Gray was being combative and a hostile crowd looked on, they said.
Williams said prosecutors failed to show the lieutenant was aware of a departmental policy requiring seat belts for prisoners during transport.
"A mere error in judgment is not enough to show corruption," the judge said.