The trial involving the most serious charges filed in connection to Freddie Gray’s death begins today. Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr., who drove the police wagon that transported Gray, faces charges including second-degree depraved heart murder.
During pretrial motions on Monday, Goodson opted to be tried by a judge rather than a jury. If convicted, the second-degree murder charge alone carries a maximum 30-year prison sentence.
Warren Alperstein, a defense attorney in Baltimore with no connection to the case, said Goodson is “putting all of his eggs in one basket” by leaving the verdict up to a judge.
“On the other hand, Judge Williams certainly has demonstrated in Nero’s trial that he is able to hear the evidence, apply the law and ultimately make a decision that may not be popular,” he added.
Alperstein called Goodson’s case “the make-or-break case” among the trials.
“It would be a devastating blow if the state was unable to secure a conviction,” he said.
Geoffrey P. Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, said that of the trials so far, “this is going to be the toughest.”
“We’re seeing a huge increase in trials for officers for any criminal offense, but I’ve never seen a murder trial for an officer without video or eyewitness testimony,” he explained.
Goodson is the third of six police officers to go to trial and is one of the three Black officers facing charges. His additional charges are one count each of second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office, as well as three counts of manslaughter.
The first two officers tried were not convicted. Officer William Porter was tried by a jury. A verdict could not be reached and a mistrial was declared. He will be tried again in September.
Officer Edward Nero opted for a bench trial and was acquitted in May by Judge Barry G. Williams. Goodson will face Judge Williams as well.
Of the six officers, only Goodson did not provide a statement to investigators.
Goodson’s trial will also be interesting because a court ruled that Porter will be allowed to testify. The officers have not spoken out about the case because they, as well as their attorneys and the prosecutors, agreed to a gag order preventing them from talking about it.
Porter’s testimony could provide an interesting spin on the trial. Detective Syreeta Teel testified during Porter’s trial that Porter said, in an unrecorded phone conversation, that Gray said “I can’t breathe” during the police van’s fourth stop. But when Porter made his recorded statement he did not recount making the comment, and on the stand he denied it as well.
Alperstein called excluding the alleged “I can’t breathe” statement a “home run” for the defense because the officers would have no way of knowing Gray needed medical attention.
“How does the state prove that Goodson was aware of this need without Porter’s statement” Alperstein said.
However, Porter’s credibility came into question during his trial. While he denied Gray said he couldn’t breathe, Porter testified that he told Goodson that Gray needed medical attention. He did not provide a reason why he believed this, though, and prosecutors accused him of lying.
And in assistant medical examiner Carol Allan’s autopsy report for Gray, she writes that at the van’s fourth stop Porter “opened the doors and observed Mr. Gray lying belly down on the floor with his head facing the cabin compartment, and reportedly he was asking for help, saying he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t get up and needed a medic.”
The possibility that Gray was given a “rough ride” by Goodson will likely be brought up during the trial as well. In Baltimore, a “rough ride” is the practice of putting a handcuffed prisoner in the back of a police van without a seatbelt and driving in a manner to intentionally inflict harm upon the passenger.
The question will be whether or not this is indeed what happened to Gray on the day of his arrest, according to David Jaros, a law professor at the University of Baltimore.
“Absent a rough ride, it is much harder to understand the prosecution’s decision to pursue that [murder] charge, which requires a wanton and reckless disregard for human life that is so significant that it is akin to intentional murder,” Jaros said.
Following his ride in the police van, Gray was found unconscious and taken to the hospital. He died of a severe spinal cord injury a week later. His death sparked riots and protests against police brutality across Baltimore. Shortly after, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced charges against the six officers connected to the events that occurred during the day of the arrest.