Baltimore prosecutors are facing mounting obstacles in their manslaughter case against the highest-ranking officer charged in the death of Freddie Gray.
Baltimore Police Lt. Brian Rice, center, arrives at Courthouse East Tuesday, July 5, 2016 in Baltimore for a pretrial hearing related to the arrest and death of Freddie Gray. Rice’s lawyers said Tuesday that he has chosen to be tried instead by a judge, the same one who acquitted two fellow officers in Freddie Gray’s death. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun via AP)
Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams ruled July 5 that prosecutors can’t enter into evidence 4,000 pages of documents involving the training of Lt. Brian Rice, the fourth of six officers — three black, three white — to be tried in the young black man’s death.
Gray died after his neck was broken inside the metal prisoner compartment of a police van. Prosecutors say the officers were criminally negligent when they bound Gray’s hands and feet with handcuffs and shackles, but left him unrestrained by a seatbelt, thus vulnerable to injury.
Prosecutors are expected to argue that the 17-year Baltimore Police veteran knew or should have known that he and the officers he commanded were violating orders by intentionally leaving Gray unbuckled. Examining his in-service training records in court might have helped.
After three trials, Williams has yet to rule that the officers committed any crimes. The first, heard by a jury, ended in a mistrial. The next two officers let Williams alone decide their fates, and he acquitted both. Now Rice wants a bench trial as well, on charges that also include assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment.
In a final pre-trial hearing Tuesday, Williams denied a defense request to dismiss the charges, but he also denied the use of Rice’s training documents, saying the state failed to share them with the defense in time.
Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow said prosecutors had been seeking the documents from police “for months and months,” and gave copies to the defense on June 29, the day after they got them.
“Why would you expect the court to allow you to drop 4,000 pages on the defense a few days before trial without repercussions?” the judge countered. “You’ve said it’s been difficult for you to get the documents from the police department. Ok, then go up the chain. Talk to people. Go to the court. You didn’t do that.”
Later Tuesday, police spokesman T.J. Smith said the department received a written request for the documents on June 18, and worked overtime to produce them just 10 days later.
City Solicitor George Nilson said the state requested Rice’s training records in May and October 2015, and were given a single six-page document in response. The state broadened the scope of its request on June 18, yielding much more voluminous results, he said.
The dispute shows how difficult it is to prosecute police officers, said University of Baltimore Law School professor David Jaros, who has observed the trials.
“Given that the state was already facing a serious uphill battle, the inability to bring in any evidence of Lt. Rice’s in-service training on how to secure a suspect made their case that much harder,” Jaros said.
But Schatzow’s explanation — that the police department was reluctant to turn internal documents over to the state — will be viewed quite differently on each side of society’s divide on criminal justice issues, Jaros predicted.
People who believe criminal trials are unwarranted in Gray’s death could see this as yet another example of incompetence or bad motives in the prosecutor’s office, he said, while those who believe a crime occurred will likely instead blame the police instead.
Rice, who has been suspended without pay, has troubles of his own in his personnel file: He was hospitalized over mental health concerns and twice placed on administrative suspensions.
In 2012, police confiscated Rice’s official and personal firearms after fellow Baltimore police officer Karen McAleer, the mother of Rice’s child, requested a welfare check.
A police union attorney attributed Rice’s 2013 suspension to a protective order filed by McAleer’s then-boyfriend, and said such issues “had nothing to do with his ability to perform his duties as a Baltimore police officer.”
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby vowed to bring justice to an aggrieved citizenry when she announced the charges last year. But she has yet to find success in court, and is being sued for defamation by five of the officers.
Officer William Porter faces a retrial in September after his mistrial. Edward Nero and the van’s driver, Caesar Goodson, were acquitted of all charges. The judge has yet to rule on motions to dismiss the cases against the other two, Sgt. Alicia White and Officer Garrett Miller.
Race hasn’t been cited as a direct factor in the death of the 25-year-old black man, who was arrested after trying to run from Rice, a white officer. The judge, chief prosecutor, mayor, and then-police commissioner are African-American.
Still, his fatal injury in police custody in April 2015 fueled the Black Lives Matter movement, which decries the treatment of black Americans by people in power.
None of the parties involved in the case can comment due to a gag order issued by the judge.