- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 7, 2016

BALTIMORE | As an increasingly disgruntled crowd gathered around the police van, Freddie Gray became combative, and the top police officer at the scene thought it unsafe to crawl into the van with the prisoner to secure him with a seat belt, defense attorneys told a judge Thursday.

During a stop away from the scene of the arrest, Gray was shackled around his ankles, handcuffed behind his back and slid into the back of the van on his belly.

Defense attorneys described Gray’s April 12, 2015, arrest in their opening statements in the trial of Lt. Brian Rice, the highest-ranking of six Baltimore Police officers charged in the arrest and death of Gray. The 25-year-old black man died a week after his neck was broken during his 45-minute ride in the back of the van, which had stopped a total of six times with Gray inside.

Attorney Chaz Ball told Judge Barry Williams that the outcome of the trial hinges on whether Lt. Rice’s “nine-second assessment that it was too dangerous to force a seat belt on Gray rises to criminal negligence or a corrupt dereliction of duty,” noting the 42-year-old officer’s 18 years of experience in community policing in the city.

Lt. Rice, the fourth officer to face trial in the Gray case, is charged with involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. Prosecutors dropped one misconduct charge against Lt. Rice before their opening statements on Thursday.

The bench trials of two other officers ended with acquittals from Judge Williams in June; a trial ended with a hung jury in December, and a retrial is set for September.

Prosecutors said in opening statements that Lt. Rice was the senior officer at several of the van stops and should have belted Gray in himself or ordered a subordinate officer to do so.

“This defendant is not an inexperienced officer who was ignorant of the rules that govern his conduct,” Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow said.

Save the mention of Lt. Rice’s authority over other officers involved, Mr. Schatzow is taking a similar tack as in the other Gray-related trials: Someone should have secured Gray at some point before stops one and four, when the state says his neck was broken. Since the officers didn’t, they are complicit in Gray’s death, the prosecution argues.

“The fact that Lt. Rice took nine seconds and left him in a hazardous situation is an important piece to show,” said Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor who has been watching the Gray-related trials.

But even more than that, the state has to convince Judge Williams that Lt. Rice, as a superior officer, had a duty to safeguard Gray, the law professor said.

“You have to factor in that [Lt. Rice] is making the decision,” Mr. Colbert said.

The prosecution offered no new facts. It was dealt a blow earlier this week when Judge Williams ruled that prosecutors could not present evidence that Lt. Rice had taken in-service training since becoming a police officer.

The judge said the prosecution once again had violated discovery rules when it handed over to the defense about 4,000 pages of documents related to Lt. Rice’s training just days before the start of the trial. The state had planned to use the training documents as proof that officers ignored police regulations when they failed to restrain Gray with a seat belt.

Three other Gray-related trial are scheduled: Officer Garrett Miller is to be tried beginning July 27, Sgt. Alicia White on Oct. 13, and Officer William Porter is to be retried beginning Sept. 6.

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