Why both sides of Freddie Gray trials support the same judge

With the third, and most serious, trial of the Freddie Gray case set to begin Thursday, both sides of the case agree Judge Barry Williams is aptly qualified. 

Both sides of the Freddie Gray trial agree: Judge Barry Williams is the best man for the job.

“I think at the end of the day, no matter what side of the coin you are on, with Judge Barry Williams presiding over the case, you are going to understand and realize that everyone received a fair trial,” local defense attorney Doug Colbert told CNN's Baltimore affiliate WBAL.

After studying at the University of Virginia, Judge Williams received his law degree at the University of Maryland. Williams worked as an assistant state’s attorney specializing in street crime for eight years before becoming a trial attorney, and later special litigation counsel in the Department of Justice’s civil rights division, where he deliberated police misconduct cases. And from 2012 to 2014, Williams chaired Baltimore’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. 

“I’ve been trying to think, could I imagine anyone else in terms of their career path who would have been better prepared for this case?” Larry Gibson, Williams’ former professor at the University of Maryland Francis Carey Law Center, told the Associated Press. “I can’t.”

Twenty-five-year-old Freddie Gray was arrested in April 2015 after running away from the police. Gray was then handcuffed and put in the back of a police van – without a seatbelt – where he suffered a spine injury during transport. When Gray died in the hospital a week later, protesters filled the streets and his case quickly became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Marilyn Mosby, the state’s Attorney for Baltimore, charged six officers who were involved with Gray’s arrest with a variety of crimes, ranging from involuntary manslaughter to depraved-heart murder.

Officer William Porter was the first of six officers to be tried in Gray’s death. Williams declared a mistrial in Mr. Porter’s case after deadlocked jurors failed to reach in agreement on Porter’ charges of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and misconduct in office. Williams has scheduled a new trial for Porter on Sept. 6. 

Officer Edward Nero was tried next in early May. Mr. Nero opted for a bench trial instead of a typical jury. Judge Williams acquitted Nero of all charges, a decision both sides of the case considered reasonable. 

“Mr. Nero wasn’t the arresting officer and didn’t transport Gray,” Peter Moskos and Leon Taylor, both former Baltimore police officers, wrote for The Baltimore Sun. “The case against Mr. Nero was fuzzy at best and malicious prosecution at worst. In his acquittal, Judge Barry Williams said the prosecution’s main argument of accomplice liability was not ‘an appropriate application of the law.’ Consider patients who die in surgery. Sometimes it’s even the doctor’s fault. But never would you see an entire operating room arrested.”

Even the Gray family attorney agrees that Nero’s acquittal was just. 

“At this critical time and for good and sound and decent reasons, we have to respect Judge Williams’ opinion, because it was the result of an obviously fair process,” Gray family attorney Billy Murphy told CNN after the ruling.

Williams’s “excellent reputation both for probity and for being an aggressive prosecutor for many years ... of police misconduct cases,” relieves concerns about the legal process, Murphy added. “That gives us confidence that our designated representative of the community, Judge Barry Williams, did a credible job. That’s all we wanted out of the process.... You couldn’t ask for a more fair-minded judge than Barry Williams.” 

But because Nero’s case was so disconnected from the circumstances surrounding Gray’s death, his acquittal sheds little insight on Williams’ future rulings – and both sides’ future reactions. 

Williams’ apt understanding of the law, and his support by both sides of the case, will be examined closely Thursday as the trial of Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. begins. Goodson was the driver of the police van at the time of Gray’s injury and of all six officers charged, he is the only one facing a murder charge. If convicted, Goodson could face up to 30 years in prison.  

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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