Officer Caesar Goodson’s trial transcends beyond Baltimore in exposing difficulties in proving police brutality cases when relying on police to investigate other officers.
Closing arguments begin on Monday, June 20, in the trial of Caesar Goodson, the van driver and third Baltimore officer, to go to trial for the death of Freddie Gray. Goodson’s trial exposed the heart of the problems with proving these officers guilty of the various crimes for which they are charged in Gray’s death. And Goodson’s trial transcends beyond Baltimore in exposing difficulties in proving police brutality cases when relying on police to investigate other officers.
Gray died on April 19, 2015 after being placed in police custody in a police van without a seat belt on April 12, 2015. The state alleges he was given a “rough ride” by van driver officer Goodson, which ultimately resulted in his spinal injuries and death, along with a failure to seat belt Gray, to avoid injury. Goodson faces the most serious charges of second degree murder, manslaughter and other lesser charges.
At times during the Goodson trial this week, it appeared as if a war existed between the two parties—the police responsible for investigating Gray’s death and prosecutors. And yet, the state must rely upon the investigating police officers to obtain a conviction. Everyone who knows what really happened to Freddie Gray is a police officer.
Through the police lens, the view appears tilted towards helping to exonerate Goodson. Before the beginning of the Goodson trial, prosecutors were turning over evidence to the defense that had not been previously turned over to prosecutors in over a year. And then this week, Det. Patty Bauer testified for Officer Goodson that she trained him but never trained him in seat belting prisoners- a key issue. Her entire testimony ended up being stricken by Judge Barry Williams when she further acknowledged that she wasn’t sure that she was the one who taught Goodson.
Through the prosecutor lens, the integrity of the police investigation into Gray’s death was flawed with sabotage from the beginning. In a rare courtroom scene almost straight out of a movie, prosecutors accused police investigators of trying to sabotage their case. The rift between the two parties, prosecution and their investigating police, began when State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby launched an independent investigation in April, 2015.
With prosecutors and investigating police at odds, in addition to the presumed code of blue silence among police officers, the family of Freddie Gray and the City of Baltimore may never know what really caused the death of Freddie Gray.
The state’s theory against Officer Goodson is that he gave a “rough ride” to Gray which resulted in the spinal injuries at the van’s fourth stop. At trial, the state showed very little, if any, evidence of a rough ride. A rough ride as testified by an expert state witness is retaliatory prisoner transportation. The state’s expert testified that prisoners who are unsecured by seat belt but shackled have no way to stop themselves from becoming projectiles in a police van.
There was no direct testimony by any witness that Freddie Gray was given a rough ride. No video and no independent eyewitnesses exist. Although the term “rough ride” is known in many communities in Baltimore, there is no direct proof in this trial. CCTV video does not show the van travelling erratically except for going through a stop sign. A rough ride is almost essential to prove Goodson committed depraved heart second degree murder. That charge is hanging on by the very thinnest thread.
The defense claims that Gray sustained his injuries in a “freakish accident”—not by a homicide. Dr. Carol Allan from the Baltimore Medical Examiner’s office performed the autopsy on Gray and ruled his death as a homicide. She emphatically denied ever calling it a freak accident. However, the defense was allowed to put on a police witness that stated Allan previously said during investigation it was likely a freakish accident.
The state further relies on the theory that Gray should have been seat belted in the van as police orders state. However, the police general orders are policy and not law.
Another complication for the state is whether police had a duty to call a medic for Gray when he allegedly requested one. Herbert Reynolds, a first aid instructor, stated a duty exists for an officer to seek medical aid when a prisoner requests it. But he later added only if the officer also readily observed medical distress. And despite Officer Goodson? being seen on video observing Gray in the van, no one testified that he saw any medical distress signs.
The strongest state witness on how Gray’s injuries occurred was Dr. Soriano. He testified that Gray’s injuries could only be sustained by an extremely high force and not by causing his own injury—as the defense contends. Det. Boyd testified that at the presumed time of Gray’s injuries, the van was less than 3 miles away from a hospital but the van drove another 21 minutes. A medic, if called, could have assessed Gray’s condition in 30-60 seconds, When the van made its final stop, Gray’s heart had stopped beating. Defense experts dispute the claims of Dr. Soriano and contend Gray’s injuries occurred after Goodson checked on him.
The facts of Gray’s death are compelling. The entire state’s case is mostly built on inferences and circumstantial evidence. And prosecutors can win murder cases based on circumstantial evidence. But like O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony cases prove, murder cases are also lost on circumstantial evidence.
The inferences on which the state wants the judge to rely upon may be too high of a mountain to climb for a conviction. It’s not what you think happened in criminal law, it’s what the state can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. If the state fails to prove its theories beyond a reasonable doubt to Judge Williams of a homicide due to rough ride given to Gray, a duty to seat belt Gray and a duty to call for a medic or transport Gray to a hospital, then Goodson will likely be found not guilty of some if not all of the charges: second degree “depraved heart” murder, involuntary manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter (2 counts), assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.
If Judge Williams believes the testimony of the state medical examiner’s ruling Freddie Gray’s death a homicide and Dr. Soriano’s testimony that Gray could not cause his own injuries, then Goodson may be found guilty of some of the charges. After closings on Monday, the fate of Caesar Goodson is in the hands of Judge Williams.
Closing arguments begin on Monday, June 20 at 10:00 a.m.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore prosecutor. She is frequently seen on Al Jazeera, BET, CBS, PBS, MSNBC, Sky News, Fox 5 DC, among others. Her Op Ed articles have appeared in the Baltimore Sun, Washington Post and Huffington Post.