Baltimore holds breath as first trial of officers charged in death of Gray begins

The trial will likely be an examination of the Baltimore Police Department's strained relationship with the black community, with Freddie Gray as its most prominent symbol. 

Patrick Semansky/AP
Protestors gather outside Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, Monday, in Baltimore, after the arrival of William Porter, one of six Baltimore city police officers charged in connection to the death of Freddie Gray. Porter, whose trial jury selection began Monday, faces charges of manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.

The jury has been selected, and the trial is set for Baltimore police Officer William Porter, one of the six officers who will each be tried individually for the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died as a result of injuries suffered while in police custody.

Mr. Porter, and his fellow defendants, will likely face two separate juries this month: the official panel expected to be seated in the jury box on Wednesday and the broader public of Baltimore, a large portion of which sees this trial as emblematic of a systemic issue of disparities in policing the city's black residents. For many activists, the fact that prosecutors have filed charges against six officers is just one small step toward justice; And the ongoing demonstrations that have taken place during jury selection of this first trial is evidence that they will be watching what happens very critically.

The fact that Porter, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, is also black complicates the narrative that Mr. Gray's treatment was a result of his skin color. However, in the eyes of many activists, Porter's race underscores a systemic racial bias in the Baltimore Police Department.

Porter has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office, and reckless endangerment. The prosecution says that Porter failed to provide medical support to Gray even though he repeatedly asked for it. Porter checked on Gray several times while he was in police custody, but did not call for medical aid even though Gray appeared to be suffering, according to prosecutors.

The combined charges could carry a total prison term of 25 years. The other officers in the case have been charged with misconduct and second-degree murder, among other allegations.

Many in Baltimore appear uneasy leading up to the trial. A verdict could carry enormous weight for the city in either direction. While the city was relatively peaceful for several days after Gray’s death, protests became violent after he was buried. Businesses were burned and looted, costing the city millions in property damage. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has decided to not seek re-election.

If Porter is acquitted, the city may see more protests. If he is convicted, however, Baltimore’s already-stressed police department may reach a breaking point.

Community activists have made clear that they will be watching the proceedings closely and demonstrations have sprung up outside the courthouse during this week's jury selection.

In an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said that the Baltimore Police Department was prepared to handle more protests, but acknowledged that it needs to do so carefully, in a way that will not contribute to the black community’s longstanding distrust of police.

The department faced sharp criticism for its response to the protests last spring and Commissioner Davis is keen to show that the department has learned from that experience.

The police presence in Baltimore "isn't an enforcement presence, it's a peace-keeping presence,” he said, and after the riots that broke out last year, the police are planning to "make a lot of people proud about how far we've come as a police department in terms of our capacity, as well as our emotional capacity, to handle civil disturbance."

The jury will be seated Wednesday, and opening statements in the trial may be expected to be heard then as well.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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