BALTIMORE — A Baltimore judge on Monday questioned prosecutors’ theory that a police officer charged with murder in the death of Freddie Gray intentionally gave him a “rough ride” in a police van that caused the 25-year-old black man’s mortal injuries more than a year ago.
Prosecutors had used the phrase “rough ride” in their opening arguments of Officer Caesar Goodson’s trial earlier this month, but Deputy State’s Attorney Janice Bledsoe did not utter the term during closing arguments Monday.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams grilled Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow to clarify how he thought Officer Goodson had driven the van to toss Gray around in the back, causing his death.
Mr. Schatzow noted that Officer Goodson did not use a seat belt to secure Gray in the back of the van, and made a wide turn before the van’s third stop. He also pointed out that Officer William Porter, who also faces charges in the Gray case, testified that he told Officer Goodson that Gray had asked for medical attention. The prosecutor said it was logical to infer that Gray was tossed around intentionally.
Yet Judge Williams expressed skepticism about a surveillance video presented by prosecutors that showed Officer Goodson running a stop sign and making a wide turn before the van’s fourth stop. The judge said the van could have stopped at the sign beyond the view of the camera and noted that the van wasn’t traveling very fast.
Judge Williams said that Officer Goodson making a slow wide turn may have been safer for Gray than taking a turn sharply at a normal rate of speed.
Officer Goodson, 46, is accused of the most serious crimes of the six officers charged in Gray’s arrest and death: second-degree “depraved heart” murder, manslaughter, assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. He would face 30 years in prison on the murder charge alone if convicted.
Judge Williams said he will hand down a verdict at 10 a.m. Thursday.
Gray had been handcuffed and shackled but not secured with a seat belt in the back of the van, a violation of police department policy. He died as a result of a broken neck a week later on April 19, 2015. His death and funeral touched off days of protests and rioting in Baltimore.
Trial watchers were split on Judge Williams’ intent in his questioning.
Warren Brown, a prominent Baltimore defense lawyer, said it echoed the judge’s questions at the end of the trial of Officer Edward Nero, who also had been charged in the Gray case. He was acquitted last month.
“I think the judge was discomfited by much of the ‘rough ride’ theory,” Mr. Brown said, noting the judge’s reluctance to continue considering the second-degree murder charge last week.
Judge Williams denied a defense motion to dismiss all the charges but said the second-degree murder charge was a “close call.”
Mr. Brown took umbrage with the prosecution’s assertion that Officer Goodson’s behavior and motivation could be proven by “logical inference.”
“Logical inference means ‘I don’t have any evidence,’” the defense lawyer said.
But David Jaros, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said that Judge Williams could have just been looking for clarification with his questions.
“The fact that the judge asked questions you have to be careful,” Mr. Jaros said, conceding that the judge’s comments on the motion to dismiss made things more difficult for the prosecution.
University of Maryland law professor Doug Colbert said it’s not wise to infer Judge Williams’ thoughts from his questions.
“It’s so rare to charge a police officer with the killing of a citizen,” Mr. Colbert said.
Prosecutors have argued that Officer Goodson was most responsible for Gray’s death because he was the only person with him during the entire 45-minute trip to a booking station. The defense has asserted that he was unaware of Gray’s injuries and of a new requirement for seat belts.
In closing statements, defense attorneys said the state had changed its argument several times and failed to prove Officer Goodson did anything unreasonable in dealing with Gray. They tried to discredit the “rough ride” theory by saying the wide turn Officer Goodson made wouldn’t have done anything to injure Gray.
“This is not ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ here,” defense attorney Matthew Fraling said. “[It is] in no way indicative of reckless or grossly negligent driving.”