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A Triumph for Disinterested Justice

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A Triumph for Disinterested Justice

The unjustified Baltimore police prosecutions run aground in the courtroom of a fair-minded judge. June 29, 2016
Public safety
Cities

The ill-fated prosecution of six Baltimore police officers for the accidental death of Freddie Gray in April 2015 was the spawn of the Black Lives Matter movement. The preposterously unjustified charges against the officers grew out of the BLM conceit that cops are racist murderers. On May 1, 2015, state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby invoked Al Sharpton’s extortionist chant of “No Justice, No Peace” as a motivation for her charging decisions, after rioters had destroyed the livelihoods of dozens of Baltimore’s workers and small businessmen.

It is therefore fitting that Mosby’s vendetta is collapsing all around her, based as it is on an ideology composed of demonstrable lies about law enforcement. Judge Barry Williams handed Mosby her third and most devastating defeat on June 23, acquitting Officer Caesar Goodson of all seven counts against him, including the ludicrous second-degree murder charge.

Gray, a 25-year-old drug dealer with a long criminal record, had been arrested for possession of an illegal knife on April 1, 2015, after running from a bike patrol officer who had made eye contact with him. During transport in a police van driven by Officer Goodson, Gray suffered a spinal cord injury that led to his death a week later. The exact timing and cause of that injury are still in dispute.

A hostile crowd was forming at the site of Gray’s arrest, so the arresting officers put Gray in Goodson’s van and instructed Goodson to drive to another location where they could complete the paperwork without interference. Goodson would make five more stops thereafter; he never spoke to Gray. Gray’s injury occurred at some still unknown point during that journey. At stop two, the three arresting officers removed Gray from the wagon, placed leg shackles and flexicuffs on him, documented the arrest, put him back in the wagon on his stomach, and left. Gray had been going limp and passively resisting the officers during that second stop; once they left him in the van he began screaming, kicking, and throwing himself around so violently that outside observers saw the van rocking. At stop three, Goodson went to the back of the van for less than 11 seconds, and then called for assistance. Judge Williams found that there was not enough time at stop three for Goodson to actually check and assess Gray. Officer William Porter answered Goodson’s call for assistance at stop four. Porter asked Gray, who was on the floor on his stomach as at stop two, how he was doing; Gray answered: “Help.” Porter asked him what he wanted help with, and Gray responded: “Help me up,” according to Porter’s testimony. Porter helped Gray get on the bench inside the van. Porter asked Gray if he wanted to go to the hospital; Gray answered yes. Porter did not believe that Gray was in need of medical treatment, but told Goodson after stop four that he did not think that Gray would be admitted to Central Booking, and that for purely administrative reasons they should take him to the hospital instead. Goodson did not call for medical assistance but proceeded to stop five to pick up another arrestee, Donta Allen. At stop five, Porter saw Gray kneeling on the floor and leaning on the bench. Porter again asked Gray if he wanted to go to the hospital; Gray again answered yes. Gray seemed lethargic but was otherwise breathing normally and showed no other signs of distress. By the final, sixth stop, Gray was unconscious, not breathing, and in visible need of urgent medical care. Goodson called for help and took him to the hospital.

Donta Allen, the arrestee picked up at stop five, told the police the day of the incident that he heard Gray banging his head against the metal “like he was trying to knock himself out or something.” The head-banging suggested to Allen that Gray was a “dope fiend.” Allen also said that it was a “smooth ride.” Allen would subsequently deny to the media his initial statement to the police.

Medical experts for the prosecution and the defense differed sharply on the timing and consequences of Gray’s spinal injury. The timing is critical to determining when Goodson should have been on notice that Gray was seriously injured. The state argued that Gray was hurt sometime between stops two and four, but that the consequences of that spinal injury would only have slowly manifested themselves, allowing Gray to continue speaking and using his muscles. The defense argued that the injury was so catastrophic that it could only have happened after stop five, since as an anatomical matter, Gray would not have been able to talk or get himself onto the bench, even with assistance, at stops four and five. The state’s position is internally contradictory, since it holds both that the catastrophic injury occurred early, creating criminal liability on Goodson’s part for not responding, and that it was not so severe as to manifest itself immediately in outward symptoms. The judge rejected the state’s theory. Even if Gray’s injuries occurred early in the ride, Williams said, they were not so obvious as to put Goodson on notice that he needed immediate medical care. The prosecutors in effect wanted to make it a crime not to take a prisoner to a hospital every time he asks to go there, Williams said, demurring from such a rule. Williams did not mention in his verdict that Gray reportedly had a history of deliberately injuring himself for the purpose of collecting cash settlements—a practice common enough among criminals to have earned a nickname, “crash-for-cash.” The prevalence of malingering and other faked or self-inflicted medical injuries among arrestees underlines the wisdom of Williams’ decision not to impose blanket criminal liability on officers for failure to honor every non-supported claim of injury by someone in his custody.

The judge also eviscerated the government’s theory that Goodson had maliciously given Gray a “rough ride.” The state claimed that video evidence showed Goodson rolling through a stop sign after stop two; the judge found that the video was inconclusive as to whether Goodson halted or not, but that in any case, Goodson was not travelling at excessive speed. The prosecutors also pointed to a wide right turn that briefly crossed the yellow line after stop two, but nothing in that turn demonstrated malicious intent, according to Williams. The rough ride charge was “inflammatory,” Williams said, but the state had failed to provide any evidence to support it.

The state’s final effort focused on making Goodson’s failure to belt Gray a crime. The judge found that a duty on Goodson’s part to belt Gray would only have arisen at stop four; before then, other officers at the scene were responsible for Gray. But there was no evidence that Goodson knew that failing to belt Gray would cause a lethal injury. Failing to seat belt a prisoner is not inherently criminal, Williams said.

Williams’s conclusions regarding the alleged “rough ride,” the likely timing and visibility of Gray’s injury, and the failure to belt Gray disposed of all the murder and manslaughter charges against Goodson. But the lesser charges in Mosby’s previous failed or flailing cases reveal the same agenda of criminalizing ordinary policing. Mosby had accused Officer Edward Nero, who was present during the initial arrest, of engaging in second-degree assault. Because Gray’s arrest was allegedly unlawful (the officers contest that allegation), the state’s attorneys argued, any contact that Nero had with Gray amounted to an assault. Such a theory was an unprecedented extension of the law. Williams pointedly asked the prosecution during Nero’s trial if every arrest without probable cause would therefore become a criminal act. The judge ultimately ruled more narrowly, finding that Nero had not touched Gray during the arrest, and threw out the case against him.

The prosecutors’ behavior during the Freddie Gray litigation was as unprofessional as the initial rushed charges. They repeatedly held back relevant evidence from the defense team—not disclosing, for example, that Donta Allen had restated to them his initial description of Gray’s head-banging. Though Judge Williams denied the defense team’s motions to throw out the case in punishment for the prosecutorial misconduct, he did allow in otherwise inadmissible hearsay evidence, such as a detective’s testimony that the coroner had twice told the police that she thought Gray’s death was a “freakish accident,” not a homicide. (The coroner would subsequently deny making that statement.) Prosecutor Jan Bledsoe, who had defended Gray in a 2012 heroin case, had referred to Baltimore officers “jacking up” ordinary citizens, a gratuitous smear on the department. Police detectives investigating the Gray death had learned that the deceased had a history of deliberate self-injury but were told by Bledsoe not to pursue the information, since that would “do the defense attorneys’ jobs for them,” according to defense counsel. Mosby’s grandstanding announcement early on that her office would conduct its own investigation of the Freddie Gray death, independent of the Baltimore police department, unjustly impugned the department’s integrity, as the Baltimore Sun has editorialized.

Bloodshed has enveloped Baltimore since the riots in April 2015. Under the relentless hostility directed at them in the streets and in the media, officers have backed off of proactive policing. Drug arrests plummeted in the aftermath of the riots, and shootings soared. In May 2015, 45 people were killed, 43 of them black. Baltimore’s per capita homicide rate in 2015 was the highest in its history, taking the lives of ten children under the age of ten. The anarchy continues today. On June 11, a gang member with a long criminal history fatally shot a 13-year-old boy who just happened to be standing near a gang rival of the shooter; the murderer, Anthony Jerome Clark Jr., AKA “Trouble,” opened fire at officers the next day as they tried to arrest him. On June 16, a 14-year-old boy stole a Jeep, fled from officers, and sped through an intersection against a red light, killing a nine year-old girl outside her elementary school. The day before Goodson’s acquittal, a Freddie Gray associate, Donzell Canada, was fatally shot in West Baltimore, a far more likely outcome for black males in Baltimore than death in police custody or death by police shooting.

Black Lives Matter agitators have not protested against this mayhem. Instead, they continue to claim that Freddie Gray’s death represents an epidemic of homicidal assault by the police against blacks and that the officers involved in his arrest should be in prison. Activist Duane “Shorty” Davis groused to the New York Times after the Goodson acquittal: “Black lives don’t matter to white America.” Never mind that the judge was black, as was Goodson and two other indicted officers. The Reverend Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon released a statement after the acquittal: “It’s sending a message that [the] lives [of poor people, people of color] don’t matter.” Never mind that the police are the one government agency most dedicated to the proposition that black lives matter; police officers put their lives on the line every day to remove gun-toting felons from the streets before they mow down more innocents.

Judge Williams was under enormous pressure to deliver guilty verdicts. That he scrupulously analyzed the evidence and carefully applied the statutory law is a triumph for disinterested justice. Had Williams agreed with the prosecution’s strained theories, proactive policing in Baltimore and the rest of the country would have taken another severe blow. But the poisonous ideology that drives this ongoing prosecution remains as dominant as ever, resulting in a national disengagement from discretionary, proactive enforcement. Homicides rose 17 percent in the nation’s largest cities last year, with homicide spikes between 50 percent and 90 percent in cities with large black populations. It is long past time for politicians to adopt the same analytical skepticism toward the lies of the Black Lives Matter movement that Judge Williams showed toward the prosecutors’ case in Baltimore—and to stand up for the truth about policing.

Photo by mrdoomits/iStock

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