In motions filed Friday, six Baltimore police officers charged with a range of criminal misconduct in the death of Freddie Gray suggested they are victims of a prosecutor’s “political motivations,” including a desire by elected officials to quell riots by offering cops “up to the masses.”
The likelihood that a Baltimore District Court judge dismisses charges altogether is scant, given what has been reported as hard evidence that officers involved in Mr. Gray’s arrest and transport had criminally reckless disregard for his well-being while in their custody.
Yet the defense’s motion does hint at an evolving but so far manageable situation for prosecutor Marilyn Mosby, a young African-American lawyer who’s been on the job only a few months: That her own personal relationships, the speed at which she brought charges, and questions around allegations of false arrest, might fuel debate over weaknesses in the prosecution’s case.
Motions to dismiss are standard in legal proceedings. Nevertheless, there is at least a hairline crack in the prosecution’s case.
In fact, the most immediate concern for the government, says David Gray, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School, is whether Ms. Mosby’s contention that Freddie Gray’s arrest itself was illegal will hold up, given recent Supreme Court rulings allowing officers to make “reasonable mistakes of the law” when stopping someone.
To be sure, the false arrest allegations pale against the central murder and manslaughter charges. But the illegal imprisonment notion cuts to a key protester complaint: That Gray was targeted, arrested and ended up dead not for anything he had done wrong, but for who he was – a young black man from a rough part of town.
Gray sustained mortal neck injuries after being left unbuckled in the back of a police wagon. Arrested and injured on April 12, Gray died on April 19. Peaceful protests as well as riots ensued, tapping into simmering distrust between the police department and swaths of Baltimore’s black community, all while touching on disgruntlement in some parts of America around how police treat young black men walking the street.
The six officers in Baltimore (three of them white, three black) were arrested nearly two weeks after Gray’s death, and following protests and looting in parts of Baltimore that ended with injuries to nearly 100 officers, and dozens of cars and businesses set ablaze.
In their motion, the officers point to the tense security situation as the impetus for Mosby’s swift allegations. Her marriage to an outspoken city councilman, Nick Mosby, also undermines her case, the officers allege in their court motion. At the very least, the officers want the court to appoint a more independent prosecutor.
“The need to quell the raging inferno of human rage and revulsion within the confines of the 7th District was emergent,” the motion reads. “These officers soon found themselves offered up to the masses by Mrs. Mosby to quell the uprising that caused most harm to the district where her husband is the City Council representative.”
One of the officers had already begun to challenge the charges against him. Officer Edward Nero demanded in court documents filed Monday to have the knife found in Gray’s pocket released to the public, to determine whether it was in fact a legal knife, as Mosby has said.
The disagreement is over vague knife laws that differentiate between “automatic” switchblade knives and “spring-assisted” knives that can be flicked open quickly using one’s thumb.
Those fuzzy legal lines, however, may not matter. Police officers, unlike citizens, are allowed to make “reasonable mistakes of the law” as they interpret whether conduct is illegal.
Given a December 2014 US Supreme Court ruling affirming that concept, the false arrest allegations may be difficult to prove, says Mr. Gray at the University of Maryland.
As he told the Monitor last week, even if an objective look at Gray’s knife showed that it’s legal to carry in Baltimore, “is it still unreasonable for the officer to think that it could be an illegal knife? That’s a close call.”
For her part, Mosby has defended her charge sheet, saying the public will understand her reasoning once facts are presented at trial.
Along those lines, the officers’ motion to dismiss on Friday came amid published court documents that allege that the senior Baltimore officer at the Freddie Gray scene, Lt. Brian Rice, had used his position two weeks before encountering Gray to tell fellow officers that “heads will roll” if they didn’t arrest his ex-girlfriend’s husband over a personal matter.