Can officers accused in Freddie Gray death get a fair trial in Baltimore?

A Baltimore judge is hearing arguments Thursday for a change of venue in the trials of six police officers charged in relation to the April death of Freddie Gray.

Bryan Woolston/Reuters
Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby (c.) leaves the courthouse after the first day of pretrial motions for six police officers charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Md., on September 2, 2015. A judge will hear arguments on Thursday about whether the officers' trials should be moved outside of Baltimore.

Defense attorneys are making the case Thursday that the trials of six police officers charged in relation to the death of Freddie Gray should be moved out of the city or kept in Baltimore.

The hearing comes on the heels of a decision by the city to pay out a $6.4 million settlement to Mr. Gray’s family in an attempt to head of a wrongful death civil suit.

Gray was a 25-year-old black man who died on April 19 after sustaining a spinal cord injury while in police custody. A medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, after which the six officers involved in his arrest and transport were charged by prosecutors.

The officers were indicted in May and face charges ranging from second-degree assault to second-degree murder.

Gray’s death sparked off a series of protests and demonstrations that rocked the city of Baltimore and led to the arrest of more than 400 people.

Lawyers for the officers say that the riots and civil unrest and other pretrial publicity would unduly sway a jury made up of Baltimore residents. They called the public and media attention around Gray’s death “unrelenting and overwhelmingly negative,” in their motion. Prosecutors believe the trial should be held in Baltimore.

While some legal experts say that arguments for a change in trial location don’t make sense due to the case’s already nationwide public profile, some say the institution of a city-wide curfew during the riots brought the events particularly close to home for Baltimoreans.

“It’s an interesting test case because every potential juror was directly affected due to the curfew, and that’s unusual,” Daniel Medwed, a professor at the Northeastern University School of Law told The Christian Science Monitor’s Henry Gass.

“It certainly doesn’t mean that the defense deserves a change of venue,” he continues. “It just means that the defense has a stronger argument than is often the case.”

Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams is expected to make a decision on the venue change after arguments. If he decides that the claim of a tainted jury has merit, he will pass on the case to Chief Administrative Judge Michel Pierson, who will decide what county in Maryland the trials will be held in.

The officers are not expected to appear in court. Three of the officers are white. Three are black.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said police will be prepared outside the courthouse in order to respond to any threats, but they will not have shields, helmets, or riot gear.

"Officers won't be donned in riot gear," Commissioner Davis told the Associated Press. "That is something we absolutely won't roll out because we don't want to be provocative or draw a line in the sand. But in the event that a peaceful protest goes south, we'll be prepared to appropriately respond to it."

All six officers, including Edward Nero and Garrett Miller, are charged with second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. Lt. Brian Rice, Sgt. Alicia White and Officer William Porter also face a manslaughter charge. Officer Caesar Goodson faces the most serious charge of all: second-degree "depraved-heart" murder, which means a defendant acted with “depraved indifference” to human life and their actions led to the person’s death.

Trials involving police officers have been moved out Baltimore previously because of concerns over pretrial publicity. In 2007, Lakisa Dinkins, who is black, sued the police department for $700,000 in damages over the arrest of her and and her 7-year-old son.

The trial was moved away from Baltimore to nearby Howard County, a majority-white suburb. While the judge in the case found that the officers acted unlawfully in the arrest of the child, the jury there, which consisted of one black juror, decided not to award the family any money.

This report contains materials from The Associated Press.

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