Freddie Gray case: Would Black Lives Matter accept acquittals of officers?

For some activists, there has been a notable absence in the national response to concerns about policing: the conviction of an officer for the high-profile death of a black man. That could change as the Freddie Gray trials begin this week.

Rob Carr/AP
William Porter, one of six Baltimore police officers charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray, arrives at a courthouse for jury selection in his trial, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015, in Baltimore.

The deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police officers is the issue that helped launch the Black Lives Matter movement into the national consciousness almost a year and a half ago.

Persistent media attention, along with the activism of Black Lives Matter, has led to some reform efforts, from practical ideas like implementing police body cameras to more-philosophical approaches such as reexamining police-community relations.

But for some activists, there has been a notable absence: the conviction of a police officer involved in the high-profile death of an African-American.

The death of Freddie Gray – the Baltimore man who died in April from injuries sustained while in police custody, triggering protests and riots – is the first high-profile case where the conviction of police officers is a real possibility. The six officers involved in the case will be tried separately in Baltimore, with the first trial, for Officer William Porter, having begun on Wednesday.

But convictions are hardly guaranteed, which prompts the question: Could Black Lives Matter and other community activists accept acquittals in the Gray case?

With the verdict carrying so much weight, the potential for disappointment is there. "Verdicts are very important," says the Rev. Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon, a Baltimore activist who says he has been involved in protests against police killings since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year. "People want these officers to be convicted, so they're very significant."

What is probably key to how activists might react, others say, is what happens in the courtroom before the verdicts – namely, whether the proceedings are considered fair.

"It comes down to whether or not they perceive the trials to be fair and just," says Shawn Alexander, an associate professor of African-American studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Currently, there is a cynicism and distrust within black communities that the courts will return what they think is a fair verdict.

This year in the United States, a dozen police officers have been charged in fatal shootings, the highest number in a decade, according to Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. So far, however, none of the officers have been convicted. Some of the cases have not reached the point of a trial.

Prosecutors typically have "a pretty high burden" to prove that an officer's use of force was unreasonable, said Kami Chavis Simmons, a former US attorney who now directs the criminal justice program at Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem, N.C., in a Monitor interview in October.

"Even if you have an increase in the indictments or prosecutions, that does not necessarily mean that you have an increase in the number of convictions," she added.

Indeed, the bar to convict police officers is inherently higher because their job often puts them in dangerous situations. The deaths of Mr. Brown as well as Eric Garner, who died after being put into a chokehold by a New York City officer, didn’t even result in indictments principally for that reason: The actions of the officers were found to be justified.

Given the lack of indictments in other cases, the simple fact that the Gray case is being heard in court is considered a victory by activists. Some people in the community are "astonished" because "we've never been at this stage before, where officers are actually going on trial," Mr. Witherspoon says.

He rattles off the names of other black men killed in police encounters in Baltimore in recent years – cases that led to either no convictions or no indictments.

No charges were brought against officers who were involved in the fatal injuries of Anthony Anderson during his arrest in a vacant lot in September 2012. Tyrone West died in July 2013 during a confrontation with police after a traffic stop, and none of the officers were charged. There were also no charges against officers in the death of George Vonn King Jr., who died after being tased five times in a hospital.

In July, a Baltimore city councilman asked State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who had recently brought charges against the six officers in the Gray case, to reopen investigations into three prior cases, including those of Mr. Anderson and Mr. West.

In the trial of Mr. Porter that is under way, prosecutors are arguing that he didn't take actions that could have saved Gray's life. Porter's defense lawyers, meanwhile, are questioning whether Gray was really in need of medical attention.

Daunasia Yancey, an organizer for the Boston chapter of Black Lives Matter, says that the movement "is absolutely ready to respond whichever way the jury goes."

While acknowledging that prosecutors do face a higher bar to convict police officers, she says that acquittals of the officers would represent "a miscarriage of justice."

"For the movement and the black community, it’s absolutely important that people be held accountable by this justice system," she continues. "[But what] I think is more important is that there are eyes on the system and people are paying attention and not letting these cases go silently into the night."

Both Ms. Yancey and Professor Alexander point out that convictions are only part of the solution that Black Lives Matter is seeking. The movement's "Campaign Zero" initiative, which seeks to address police violence in America, proposes 10 solutions, which include community oversight and limits on the use of police force.

Given the challenges they see ahead of them, many activists hardly see convictions in the Baltimore trials as a sure thing.

"For them, seeing is believing,” says Witherspoon. “They have to see convictions before they believe it’s a possibility they can happen."

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