- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 10, 2015

The attorneys representing six Baltimore Police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray failed to convince a judge Thursday that the city’s $6.4 million settlement with Gray’s family, or the riots that followed his death, were reason to move the upcoming criminal trials to a new venue.

Legal experts say the fact that a settlement came before the conclusion of a trial, let alone before a civil lawsuit was even filed, is an anomaly that in a less-publicized police misconduct case could negatively affect a potential jury. But the settlement alone, held up next to a “sea of information” about the case and resulting riots, is unlikely to spoil a jury pool, according to UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz, who has studied police-misconduct settlements.

“The fact of a settlement seems like another drop in the bucket given how much other information there is,” Ms. Schwartz said.

Baltimore officials approved the settlement Wednesday, and a Baltimore judge ruled Thursday against a motion to move the six police officers’ trials outside the city. Attorneys for the officers also had argued that riots, protests and citywide curfews over Gray’s death would make it difficult to seat unbiased jurors in the city.

“The citizens of Baltimore are not monolithic. They think for themselves,” said Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry G. Williams.

Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died after being fatally injured while handcuffed inside the back of a police van in April. Six officers are charged in connection with his death, accused of violating policy by failing to strap Gray into the van with a seat belt, and later ignoring his repeated pleas for medical attention.

SEE ALSO: Baltimore cheat sheet on trial for Freddie Gray

Legal experts say it’s rare to see civil lawsuits filed ahead of criminal cases, but it’s too soon to tell if the quick settlement in the Gray case is a new normal for cities grappling with police misconduct or use of force cases.

Since the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, ignited a national conversation about policing in minority communities, a “sea change” has occurred in Americans’ attitudes about police, said Terry Gilbert, a Cleveland attorney who specializes in police misconduct cases.

“How that will translate into more settlements, quicker settlements, larger settlements — that’s hard to say,” he said.

Civil cases often may take a back seat to criminal cases so that details can be gleaned from criminal proceedings, or a judge might put a lawsuit on hold so that police officers are not forced to give depositions that could later be used against them in criminal cases.

“But if the parties want to settle, they have a right to settle at any time, and no one can stop them,” Mr. Gilbert said.

A recent case of excessive use of force handled by Mr. Gilbert ended Tuesday with a $5.5 million verdict handed down to the family of 20-year-old Kenneth Smith, who was fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer in 2012. The verdict came after prosecutors declined to bring charges against the officer, finding that the shooting was justified.

Unsure how Cleveland officials might have handled the shooting if it had occurred this year, Mr. Gilbert said he believes recent public outcry over police misconduct opened jurors to consider the possibility that wearing a badge doesn’t mean an officer is in the right.

“When you have a case like Freddie Gray in which the system acknowledged that it was criminal, that’s a unique situation,” he said. “Up until this last year or two, we haven’t seen cases that have become so high profile that the political dissent has become so profound. That clearly is having an affect on cities who re-evaluate how they approach these cases. But it’s still a very small percentage of cases that can be settled like this.”

In the Gray case, Baltimore officials who approved the settlement had very different interests at hand than the prosecutors handing the criminal case against the officers, notes David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law school professor and an expert on police misconduct.

“The city and the mayor, their strong interest is in getting this case behind them,” Mr. Harris said. “In most situations a city would not be that eager to settle. They had more at stake.”

The settlement can serve as proof for city officials that they are mending fences between the community and police, even as routine legal procedures in the criminal case may stir up anger, he said.

Baltimore’s settlement is “certainly a benefit to the city,” both financially and politically, Ms. Schwartz said. Going forward with civil litigation would mean “repeated prolonged attention and the possibility that more damaging information is going to come out.” It also could end up costing the city more than the $6.4 million settlement, she said.

Other recent settlements paid in cases that focused on police use of force before criminal cases were complete include $5.9 million paid to the family of Eric Garner, who died after being put in a chokehold by a New York City police officer; and $3 million paid to the family of John Geer, who was fatally shot by a Fairfax County police officer after police responded to his home for a report of a disturbance.

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