Freddie Gray and the limits of courtroom prosecutions

On Thursday, the driver of the van, Officer Caesar Goodson, was acquitted of all charges. The not-guilty verdict, according to legal experts, raises questions about the limits of the criminal-justice system as a check on police misconduct.

Bryan Woolston/Reuters
A protester speaks at the courthouse in Baltimore, June 23. On Thursday, City Police Officer Caesar Goodson was found not guilty of all charges related to the death of Freddie Gray.

After being picked up for having a common pocket knife in April 2015, Baltimore resident Freddie Gray was arrested and thrown into the back of a police van and given a “rough ride” – to “bounce him around in the back of a van,” prosecutors alleged.

On Thursday, the driver of the van, Officer Caesar Goodson, was acquitted of all charges, including the most serious charges brought in Mr. Gray’s death from that ride, including “depraved-heart murder,” a second-degree offense.

For many Baltimore residents, Gray’s death from injuries sustained while in police custody was emblematic of widespread complaints about police abuse of power in poor communities, as well as a need for more empathy in how some officers deal with African-American citizens.

“The people of Baltimore are disappointed by not surprised. Police officers are not held accountable. But the community is optimistic that the justice system will be fair to the African-American community even though we have a history of being slighted. We believe the system can turn around and be fixed,” says Jamal Bryant, a pastor in Baltimore, in a phone interview. “We thought if anybody will be held accountable in some measure, it would be him. So for [Mr.] Goodson to be acquitted of all charges, it’s amazingly disheartening.”  

The verdict suggests more difficulty ahead for the prosecution, which now has seen three of its six suspects in Gray’s death either acquitted or ended in a hung jury. It was the third and most powerful blow to both the prosecution – and to efforts to squash a perception in Baltimore and beyond that, in America, “it’s justice for some,” in the words of Baltimore resident William Calhoun Jr.  Given such disappointment, the not-guilty verdict, according to legal experts, raises questions about the limits of criminal prosecutions as a check on police misconduct.

“I think people concerned about police misconduct in poor communities should not focus on whether there was a criminal conviction, because ultimately there are going to need to be other solutions to how we regulate police and make communities feel safe,” says Dave Jaros, a University of Baltimore law professor who attended the trial. “It does beg the question: If prosecutions and the use of criminal law are not the best way to regulate police conduct, then what are we going to do?”

After Gray’s death last April, protests and rioting rocked parts of the city, and the National Guard was deployed to restore calm. After the unrest, six officers were arrested for their alleged roles in Gray’s death. Three trials and a retrial are still ahead.

Last year, grand juries in two other states declined to bring charges in the deaths of both Eric Garner on Staten Island, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

But a number of other high profile cases will be tried in coming months. In South Carolina, prosecutors are readying a case against ex-North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, who can be seen on a video shooting Walter Scott in the back and then, prosecutors say, planting exonerating evidence near his body. In Chicago, Officer Jason VanDyke, who has been suspended without pay, is facing a first-degree murder charge in the shooting death of teenager Laquan McDonald.

Overall, 47 police officers were charged with murder or manslaughter for on-duty deaths by gun between 2005 and 2014. Last year saw 18 officers arrested, with six so far this year. Of those arrested for on-duty shootings, about 30 percent ended in convictions. But when the actions of off-duty officers are added to that roll, the conviction rate is around 70 percent – roughly what it is for the general population, says Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates between 928 and 1,242 law enforcement homicides a year, based on reporting data culled between 2003 and 2011. 

In the Gray case, prosecutors alleged that Goodson not only gave Gray a “rough ride,” but then failed to call for medical attention after Gray sustained an injury.

Goodson, who reacted stoically to the verdict when it was read Thursday morning, did not testify.

“The state had a duty to show the defendant corruptly failed in his duty, not just that he made a mistake," the judge said. It ultimately failed to do so on seven counts, the judge found.

The fact that the evidence didn’t live up to the prosecutor’s chief theory – that Goodson acted with reckless disregard for Gray’s life – suggested that the judge found that “there are accidents that are not criminal,” Mr. Stinson says.

“What we saw in this case was a prosecutor quick to bring criminal charges, in part to quell disturbances in the city, which is part of why it’s difficult to explain why there is no conviction here,” he adds. “Yes, we have a broken criminal justice system, but I’m not sure this is an example of the system being broken. In fact, though we may not like the outcome, it’s an example of the system working.”

Indeed, the prosecution had a “steep hill to climb” from the very beginning, Mr. Jaros says.

“No one should view the acquittal as a finding that what happened was acceptable or was reasonable police behavior,” he says. “The problem here is it takes solid evidence to prove each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This case was very different from the Laquan McDonald case in Chicago and Eric Garner in Staten Island, where this involved an omission, a failure of officers to do their job, which creates some practical difficulties in proving the case.”

Despite a sense among some Americans that the justice system protects people unequally, the indictments themselves might represent progress, argued Baltimore defense attorney A. Dwight Pettit earlier this year.

"At least the public will be able to see that battled out in the courtroom," he told the Baltimore Sun. "For the first time, it is not swept under the rug."

But for activists, indictments don’t go far enough.

“We’re still not holding police officers accountable,” says Kei Williams, the lead organizer of Black Lives Matter’s New York City chapter, in a phone interview. “The first step is indictment, and we're seeing more indictments, but then officers are just being acquitted anyway…. How can we charge them with enforcing the law if when they break it, we don't hold them accountable?"

For some leaders, Thursday’s verdict just punctuated the need for more comprehensive reforms.

“Baltimore’s future does not rest on the outcomes of the trials surrounding Freddie Gray’s death,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland said in a statement. “Baltimore’s future rests on every one of us.”

Staff writer Story Hinckley contributed to this report.

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