The start on Monday of the trial of a Baltimore police officer charged in the death of a black man while in police custody could mark a pivotal moment for a city that has been a flashpoint in the US debate on police brutality.
Officer William Porter is the first of six officers slated for separate trials in Baltimore City Circuit Court for the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a mysterious injury while in the back of a police vehicle. The verdict could have immediate consequences for Baltimore: An acquittal could mean protests and potentially more unrest, while a conviction could shake the city’s already distressed police department.
“Everything is at stake," Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said. “The future of the city is at stake.”
Mr. Gray died from a spinal injury, which he received while in the back of a police transport van following his arrest for possessing what the officers alleged was a switchblade. Officer Porter – who faces charges of second-degree assault, misconduct in office, manslaughter, and reckless endangerment – is accused of ignoring Gray's requests for medical aid and failing to put a seatbelt on him, despite Gray being shackled and handcuffed.
If found guilty on all counts, Porter could face more than 25 years in prison. The other officers face charges ranging from second-degree murder to misconduct.
Demonstrations, mostly peaceful, began after Gray’s death, but riots erupted on the day he was buried. Looters burned down businesses, and the unrest cost the city millions of dollars in property damage. In the wake of the violence, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake faced criticism and has since dropped her bid for re-election, while then-Police Commissioner Anthony Batts was fired.
The trials, like Gray’s death, are expected to serve as a microcosm for deeper, more systemic issues the city and the nation face, and throw into sharp relief Baltimore’s social and political troubles.
For one, the lack of an incumbent in the mayoral race has opened the door for others to step in – including former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who was forced to resign after being accused of embezzlement; and Nick Mosby, a city councilman and husband to state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby, who is leading the charge against the six officers.
Other issues – such as segregation, poverty, unemployment, and housing – have surfaced, as well.
One community activist, Duane Davis, said the trial will “make or break” Baltimore.
"If it doesn't go over well, what will Christmas be like? They'll shut things down," he said. "If we have more riots, who will feel safe? The world is watching Baltimore."
Mayor Rawlings-Blake has tried to take a less extreme view, and keep focus on the trial itself. Jury selection for Porter’s trial begins Monday.
“There's definitely a lot of pressure but it's hard to say what's at stake. I know what's important: that we have order in the city,” she said. “I'm prayerful that justice will prevail and the officers will be given a fair trial by a fair and impartial jury, and that the citizens of Baltimore and the police can respect the decision.”
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.