Two Baltimore police officers facing criminal charges in the death of a young black man whose neck was broken in the back of a police van have sued the city's top prosecutor and an official in the sheriff's office for defamation.
Officer William Porter and Sgt. Alicia White filed the suit against Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Maj. Sam Cogen in Baltimore Circuit Court on May 2.
Porter and White are among six officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray. Gray, 25, died on April 19, 2015, a week after his neck was broken in the back of a police transport van while he was handcuffed and shackled, but left unrestrained by a seat belt. His death prompted protests that gave way to looting and civil unrest.
Cogan signed and filed the initial charging documents in the case against the officers, and Mosby announced the charges in a news conference just days after the worst of the rioting.
Porter and White face identical charges of manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.
Porter's trial in November ended in a mistrial. His retrial is scheduled for September. White is scheduled to be tried in October.
Earlier this week, a different judge acquitted Officer Edward Nero of assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment charges.
The officers allege in their suit that Mosby, who announced charges on May 1 of last year, knowingly made false statements when she alleged wrongdoing on the part of the officers.
The suit cites statements Mosby made that Porter and White knew Gray was in distress when they checked on him in the back of the transport wagon, but ignored his cries for help and did nothing to administer aid.
"These statements were defamatory because they exposed Plaintiffs to public scorn, hatred and contempt, and thereby discouraging others in the community from having a favorable opinion of, or association with, Plaintiffs," the lawsuit says.
The suit also reads that Mosby and Cogen "breached their duty to Plaintiffs by bringing unsupported criminal charges then publicly publishing same," and that Mosby's statements were made "for the purpose of quelling the riots rather than prosecuting police officers who had committed crimes."
None of the parties involved is permitted to comment due to a gag order in the case.
The Christian Science Monitor reported that when Mosby quickly levied charges against six police officers in the death of Mr. Gray, many observers were pleased that justice was being carried out so quickly, especially following the decisions not to prosecute officers in other high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City. Now, critics are saying that the time may not have been right for Ms. Mosby to lay charges.
"This speaks to the notion a lot of people had when this first happened, which is that it was a rush to judgment," former civil rights prosecutor David Weinstein told the Associated Press. "The state's attorney was trying to balance what she had with the public outcry and call to action given the climate in Baltimore and across the US concerning policing, and I think she was overreaching."
Legal experts say the officers' lawsuit is a stretch.
David Jaros, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, said prosecutors have "absolute immunity unless they show true malice" toward a defendant. "If the state's attorney's office is ultimately mistaken about whether or not a crime occurred, or they lose a trial, those things don't give grounds to a defamation case," Jaros said.
The plaintiffs moved to seal the suit, but Baltimore Circuit Judge Althea Handy denied the motion Wednesday.