Baltimore Police Lt. Brian Rice, the fourth and highest-ranking of the six officers charged with the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, was acquitted of all charges Monday.
Officer Rice was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and misconduct related to Gray's arrest and death. Judge Barry Williams of the Baltimore City Circuit Court, had previously dismissed a second-degree assault charge, and prosecutors dropped a second misconduct charge.
The first three trials of Baltimore police, all presided over by Judge Williams, resulted in two acquittals and one hung jury.
At closing arguments, the ruling appeared to hinge on whether Officer Rice should have buckled Mr. Gray’s seatbelt instead of the detainee being strapped to the floor of the police transport van.
In fact, Williams said the failure to seat belt a detainee in a transport wagon is not inherently a crime, and that the state failed to show that Rice was aware of an updated policy that requires officers to buckle in prisoners. As a result, Williams said Rice was guided by a previous policy that allows for officer discretion when deciding when to belt.
"The state failed to show that the defendant, even if he was aware of the risk, consciously disregarded that risk," the judge said, reported the Associated Press.
Rice and the other officers arrested Gray in April 2015, after Gray ran from police. Once detained, Gray was placed in handcuffs and leg shackles and left lying facedown on the floor in the rear of the police transport. There, he suffered a spinal cord injury, according to police, and died in a hospital a week later. His death ignited protests in Baltimore.
Michael Schatzow, the chief deputy state's attorney, had argued that Rice was responsible for ensuring Gray’s safety because he was most responsible for following police procedures to fasten a prisoner in a seat belt.
“He should have restrained him,” said Schatzow.
Defense attorney Michael Belksy said police procedures allowed for discretion if officers feel their safety is at risk. Mr. Belsky said officers were concerned Gray was not being cooperative and the mood among onlookers was not “happy or cooperative” either.
For some, Rice's acquittal again raises questions over whether the country’s judicial process can provide vindication in these types of cases. But others say the case against the officers involved in Gray's death was weak from the start and represented a rush to prosecution fueled by public outcry. It also comes at a time when law enforcement officers are increasingly seen as targets: On Sunday, three officers in Baton Rouge were fatally shot by a black former US Marine.
After the acquittal of Caesar Goodson, the driver of the van in which Gray sustained a fatal injury, Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said that it was "time to put this sad chapter behind us." He said ongoing prosecution of the cases would hinder the ability of police in Baltimore to do their jobs, reported the Los Angeles Times.
Officer Garrett Miller is scheduled to go to trial next, on July 27. Porter is scheduled to be retried on Sept. 6. And Sgt. Alicia White, is scheduled to go to trial Oct. 13. All of the officers have pleaded not guilty.
Even with this acquittal, the death of Gray has helped define the trajectory of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has sought to bring about public awareness of, and ultimately justice for, victims of police misconduct. As far as the country has come since the death of Gray, though, the deaths this past week of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Minneapolis, Minn., both documented through cellphone videos, led to a further yearning among the black community for justice, as the Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson and Henry Gass write.
“In their disturbing intent to document death, the two videos reflect the depth of desperation among many in the black community,” they write. “For all that has changed in police reform and public perception since Ferguson two years ago, black men who appear to present no clear threat are still dying at the hands of police.”
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.