In the evolving case of six officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, Maryland’s highest court is set to hear oral arguments Thursday on whether prosecutors can force a Baltimore police officer to testify against his colleagues.
Mr. Gray's death in police custody after sustaining a neck injury during police transport set off widespread protests in Baltimore that later became riots on the day of his funeral last April. It become one of several controversial killings of black men by police officers that sparked protests across the country, including in Cleveland, New York, and Ferguson, Mo., which brought national attention to the Black Lives Matter movement.
A seven judge panel on Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals will consider whether Officer William Porter, whose criminal trial ended with a hung jury in December, can be compelled to testify against his fellow officers while he faces a retrial scheduled for June.
After Baltimore City Circuit Judge Barry Williams handed a victory to each side, ruling that Officer Porter would have to testify against two officers but not the other three, both the prosecution and the defense launched appeals, sending the case to the higher court.
In granting Porter limited immunity to testify against both Officer Caesar Goodson, who was driving the van and faces second-degree murder charges, and Sergeant Alicia White, one of his superiors, Judge Williams — who is overseeing all six cases — noted that he was in “uncharted territory” last month.
But he said he saw no reason why the limited immunity would not be sufficient to protect Porter’s rights, the Baltimore Sun reported.
The judge rejected prosecutors’ motion to force Porter to testify against the other three officers — Lieutenant Brian Rice and Officers Garrett Miller and Edward Nero — saying the state was trying to stall those trials.
The case has been caught up in a legal dispute, as Porter has asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination despite being granted immunity in exchange for his testimony in the two cases. Prosecutors, in turn, called Porter’s “hand-wringing” about the effect his testimony could have on his retrial “unfounded and premature” in a court filing last month.
The trials have all been put on hold pending a decision from the appeals court, though when that decision will come is unclear.
The high court’s hearing comes days after a Baltimore citizens advocacy group released a report drawing on six months of interviews with residents in West Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood, where Gray lived.
Noting an atmosphere of mistrust between police and the local community and allegations of abuse, the report focused on a need for increased reforms focused on relations between police and the communities they serve. The full report is expected to be released next week.
“What we found was there is inherent racism and bias in policing in Baltimore," research organizer Rebecca Nagle told local radio station WBAL on Tuesday. “We talked to people whose family members had been killed by the police, whose bones had been broken by police, who had their houses torn apart in drug raids to find out the police had read the address wrong.”
This report contains material from Reuters and The Associated Press.