An announcement that prosecutors are dropping all charges against officers awaiting trial in the Freddie Gray case is spurring further protest and questions about police and minority communities.
The surprise decision to drop all charges against the remaining three officers followed three previous acquittals and a mistrial frustrates Baltimore residents wondering whether anything has improved in police relations.
Prosecutors said they still believed Mr. Gray's death was a homicide, but they could not make the case.
"After much thought and prayer, it has become clear to me that – without being able to work with an independent investigatory agency from the very start, without having a say in the election of whether our cases proceed in front of a judge or a jury, without communal oversight of policing in this community, without real, substantive reforms to the current criminal justice system – we could try this case 100 times, and cases just like it, and we would still end up with the same result," State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby told reporters during a news conference Wednesday.
The last two trials out of a planned six will not proceed, although Officer Garrett Miller arrived at the courthouse for a trial Wednesday, and Officer Alicia White was set for trial later in the year, CBS News reported. The charges against Officer William Porter, whose case ended in a mistrial in December, have also been dropped.
The prosecution's four previous cases against officers involved with Gray's arrest and transport via police van ended in three acquittals and a mistrial. By dropping all charges against Mr. Miller, the prosecutors avoided having to take the stand, the Baltimore Sun reported. Miller had received special immunity so he could provide testimony during a previous case without self-incrimination, meaning prosecutors swore not to use anything he had said previously.
Freddie Gray of Baltimore died on April 19, 2015 from spinal injuries he received while in policy custody. The trials of the officers involved in his arrest and transport via police van have become a controversial symbol of the call for color-blind justice from and toward American police. As four prosecution attempts ended without condemnation, some have suggested that prosecuting officers who wrongfully use force against black Americans is near-impossible.
"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," Dave Jaros, a University of Baltimore law professor who attended the trial, told The Christian Science Monitor. "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?"
Some wonder whether the justice system itself has failed. After the decision to drop all charges, Ms. Mosby said she believed the police investigation into Gray's death was neither impartial nor fair. The decision is likely to spark yet more protests, which already followed Gray's death, his funeral, and each successive acquittal.
"So far we've had a mistrial and an acquittal. No one has been held accountable for the killing of Freddie Gray," the Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, a local activist, told the Monitor in May. "The only measure of justice that will lead to healing is the conviction of these officers."
It is hardly a clear-cut failure, however. Judge Barry Williams, who has presided over all the cases, is highly regarded in Baltimore. After one acquittal, the attorney for Gray's family said they respected his opinion as "the result of an obviously fair process."
Some have insisted that change takes time but is happening slowly. In July, the Baltimore police released its first major policy overhaul since 2003, with new guidelines that emphasize the "sanctity of life" and de-escalation of conflict, the Monitor reported.
"There are substantial benefits to a public trial and prosecution, whatever the outcome," Douglas Colbert, a professor at University of Maryland's Francis King Carey School of Law, told the Monitor. "Sometimes trials may not result in the justice that people seek, but lead to change that will avoid further catastrophes."