Why the second trial in Freddie Gray's case carries so much weight

Baltimore police officer Edward Nero heads to court Thursday for his role in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray. The ruling in Nero's case has potential implications for the other officers involved as well as future trials of police officers. 

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Officer Edward Nero, one of six Baltimore city police officers charged in connection to the death of Freddie Gray, arrives at a courthouse at the beginning of his trial, Thursday, in Baltimore Md.

The trial of Baltimore police Officer Edward Nero, set to begin Thursday, could render the first verdict to one of the six officers involved in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray.

Mr. Nero and his fellow officers arrested Mr. Gray, 25, in April 2015 after he ran from the police. After Gray was arrested, he was placed in handcuffs and put in the back of a police van where he suffered a spine injury. Gray died in the hospital a week later. The death of the young Baltimore man sparked outrage and protests in the city, quickly becoming a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Nero faces less serious charges compared with the five other officers involved, but his case still holds significance for both the "Justice for Freddie Gray" movement and for future prosecutions of police officers.

Nero and fellow Officer Garrett Miller face the least amount of charges: assault, misconduct in office, and reckless endangerment. Meanwhile, Officer William Porter, Sgt. Alicia White, Lt. Brian Rice, and Officer Caesar Goodson face an additional manslaughter charge. Officer Goodson, the driver of the police van, faces an additional charge of second-degree murder.

Officer Porter's trial ended in a mistrial in December, after jurors became deadlocked. The outcome was disappointing to members of the community who see Freddie Gray's case as emblematic of a police force that they say has routinely mistreated African-American residents for years. Still, many Baltimoreans saw hope in the fact that these officers were being tried at all, as Mary Wiltenburg reported for the Monitor:  

There’s some satisfaction just in seeing the judicial process at work, and the fact that jurors must have had strong convictions and stood by them, says J. Wyndal Gordon, a Baltimore defense attorney who’s attended parts of the Porter trial – and represents two young men facing serious charges that stem from the unrest.

'That takes courage in and of itself. [A]s a lawyer, I really appreciate that,' said Mr. Gordon, who stopped by the protest. But at the same time, as a black man who grew up in Baltimore, he says, 'it’s sort of anticlimactic, because we didn’t get anything.'

Nero's case is more likely to end in a definitive verdict, as he has elected to a bench trial that will be decided by a judge rather than a jury. It won't be the most significant of the six trials relating to Gray's death, but it will be meaningful in ways that could apply to other cases entirely.

Nero is not directly charged for Gray’s death, as NPR’s Jennifer Ludden reports: “Instead, prosecutors are expected to argue that Officer Edward Nero had no probable cause to arrest Gray – and therefore doing so amounts to assault.” 

Nero’s lawyers say this is an unprecedented move, and outside commentators agree. University of Maryland law professor Douglas Colbert tells the Guardian that the prosecutors’ argument is a “bold move.” Nero’s case could have “wide-ranging implications on how officers can be punished for illegal stops, searches and detentions,” explains the Guardian. 

And although the six officers involved in the case are facing different charges, Nero’s ruling could have various implications for all of the subsequent trials. 

“While the charges against Nero are relatively minor compared to those faced by the other officers, the outcome of his trial is expected to have major implications, particularly for Lieutenant Brian Rice and Officer Garrett Miller, who also appear in video footage of the arrest,” explains Vice’s Annalies Winny. “The case against all three relates primarily to whether there was probable cause to pursue and arrest Gray in the first place. The cases against Porter, Sargent Alicia White, and Officer Caesar R. Goodson are quite different, relating more specifically to the injuries sustained by Gray in the police van, and the alleged failure of the three to provide medical attention.”

Porter was the first officer involved in Gray’s death to go on trial in December, but his case ended in a mistrial after the jury could not decide on a verdict.  But Officer Porter has been ordered to testify in the remaining five trails even as he potentially awaits a new trial of his own. 

Prior to the trial, Judge Williams agreed to a number of the defense’s requests to limit information. Video footage of the arrest will be permitted, but it must be muted. The defense argued that onlookers’ commentary and Gray’s screams might prejudice the case. The state will also be prevented from giving a “step-by-step” explanation of Gray’s injuries as well as arguing that the knife found on Gray was legal because it was found after the disputed arrest was made. 

A ruling in Nero’s case is expected in about five days, as he has opted for a bench trial instead of a jury ruling.  

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