Freddie Gray mistrial: Still a 'huge step forward' in how cities try cops

A hung jury Wednesday in the first Freddie Gray trial in Baltimore could affect the prosecution of other police in the case. But the William Porter trial appeared fair and revealing.

Patrick Semansky/AP
Officer William Porter (r.) one of six Baltimore city police officers charged in connection to the death of Freddie Gray, walks into a courthouse during jury deliberations, Wednesday in Baltimore. A hung jury resulted in a mistrial.

The first of six trials in the death of Freddie Gray has ended in a mistrial, with the jury unable to reach a verdict in the case of Officer William Porter after almost 20 hours of deliberations in Baltimore.

The outcome – or lack of an outcome – may complicate prosecutions of the other five officers, and protests quickly spread across Baltimore Wednesday night. But at a time when the nation in general – and Baltimore in particular – has been struggling with how the justice system should treat police accused of serious crimes, even the mistrial was a positive moment for the justice system and police accountability, some say.   

"The public learned a great deal about what happened to Freddie Gray, and about how police responded," says Douglas Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland's Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore, who attended every day of the trial. "That's going to serve the cause of justice well for future prosecutions."

Lawyers are expected to meet with Judge Barry Williams Thursday to schedule a retrial, but experts say the inconclusive result could have a significant impact on the five trials ahead.

Mr. Gray died April 19 from injuries, including a broken neck, he sustained while in the back of a police van with wrists and ankles shackled.

Of the six officers charged in the case, Officer Porter faced some of the more severe charges: manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment, and misconduct. He could have received 25 years in prison. Lt. Brian Rice and Sgt. Alicia White face the same charges, while Officer Caesar Goodson, Jr. – who was driving the van – faces a maximum of 68 years for charges that include manslaughter and second-degree depraved-heart murder.

Reports have suggested that prosecutors may have wanted to use Porter’s testimony against Officer Goodson, but Porter could now invoke his Fifth Amendment right to not testify. The mistrial could simultaneously make it more likely for prosecutors to pursue plea deals with some of the officers, and more likely for the officers to reject those deals and take their chances in court. 

"One cannot help but think that this might be an ominous sign for the prosecution," says Daniel Medwed, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. "The prosecution may be a little more concerned about its ability to get convictions for trial."

Porter's case was especially hard to get a conviction, experts say, because the case revolved around the fact that he didn't do something. During the two-week trial, prosecutors argued that Porter’s indifference made him criminally responsible for Gray’s death.

A. Dwight Pettit, a veteran Baltimore defense attorney, says he had never seen such an argument made in a criminal case in Maryland before.

"This is a tough case, when we talk about nonfeasance instead of malfeasance," he says.

This dynamic may have made it more challenging to persuade a jury to convict Porter, says Professor Colbert of the University of Maryland.

"When you have the rare instance of a prosecution against a police officer based on his failure to protect a prisoner, some people on the jury may have a more difficult time with holding the officer responsible," he says.

One positive prosecutors could take from the mistrial relates to ongoing defense efforts to have the trials moved out of Baltimore.

"The first trial has demonstrated you can pick a jury in Baltimore city," says Mr. Pettit. "The fact that the jury's hung [means] the jurors were looking at the issues very objectively."

The Freddie Gray trials have an added historical significance in the context of America's ongoing debate over police use of force. Gray is one of several high profile examples of black men who have died in the hands of law enforcement, but his case is the first to go to trial. Others, such as the death of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, never even resulted in charges being brought against officers.

Tensions were already high between some Baltimore communities and the city’s police when Gray died. Community outrage had been building for years as similarly controversial deaths went nowhere in the courts. Anthony Anderson in 2012, Tyrone West in 2013, and George Vonn King Jr., last year all died in confrontations with police, but no charges were filed.  

In this context, Colbert sees even the mistrial as a "huge step forward." 

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