The stakes are high for Baltimore City prosecutors as the third of six high profile police officer trials in the death of Freddie Gray starts on Monday, June 6 with Officer Caesar Goodson, the van driver. Prosecutors were unable to obtain a conviction in the first two trials of Officers Porter and Edward Nero. Porter’s case ended in a mistrial and Nero’s trial ended in an acquittal of all charges.
Goodson is considered to be the most culpable of the six as he is the only officer charged with the highest charge of second degree “depraved heart” murder. And Goodson was driving the van in which the prosecutors allege the injuries occurred. Whether prosecutors will be able to convict Goodson of any charges remains to be seen. There is no doubt that high pressure is on the prosecutors in this case.
There are several key things to watch for in Goodson’s case. First, Goodson did not give a statement to any investigators. And he has an absolute right to remain silent at his trial. The state bears the burden of proof of all the elements of the charges. Edward Nero did not take the stand in his defense and his trial ended with a not guilty verdict by Judge Barry Williams. The state will not be able to use any prior words against Goodson. And they must rely on the testimony of Officer William Porter. It is always difficult in a circumstantial case where the defendant gives no prior statement. It is usually in the best interest of a defendant to refrain from giving a statement to police.
William Porter, in his own trial, stated that he told Goodson that Western police district would presumably refrain from taking Freddie Gray in his medical state. Porter’s police vehicle was trailing behind the van and stopped to assist with Gray in the back of the van. Other officers testifying in Nero’s trial stated that the seat belting of an arrestee was the van driver’s responsibility. The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that Porter must be compelled to testify in Goodson’s case. And Porter has been granted limited immunity for his testimony.
The state’s case revolves around a criminal negligent homicide theory of failing to seat belt Freddie Gray. The state contends that Baltimore police general orders mandated the use of seat belts in vans several days before Gray’s arrest. And the orders referenced the use of seat belts for detainees over a year preceding Gray’s arrest. A key factor in Goodson’s case as with the other officers is his knowledge of the general orders and any training. The Baltimore police department had no way of tracking if any of its officers read or opened the emails.
The Baltimore City medical examiner determined and ruled that Freddie Gray’s death was a homicide. Proving whether or not Officer Goodson is guilty of second degree murder will be an uphill battle—to say the least. The charge of second degree depraved heart carries up to 30 years in prison. While the jury will not know or be advised of the maximum penalty for the charge, they will be more cautious of convicting an officer of a second degree murder charge for something the officer failed to do—as opposed to something the officer did. While many persons speculate that Goodson took Gray on what is often termed a “rough ride”, purposefully driving erratically and escalating and stopping abruptly, there is no proof in the state’s case to show that it occurred. That would have made for perhaps a better second degree murder case. However, the case does not appear to raise to the level for a conviction of second degree murder. And a jury will not likely convict Goodson of second degree murder without a stronger case.
That leaves the charges of manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has staked her future on this case. I would not want to be in her shoes.
Update: I will be attending and covering the trial starting with opening arguments. Further updates will be given next week as the trial begins.
Bio: Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore prosecutor. She frequently appears on air on Al Jazeera, MSNBC, BET, Fox 5 DC, PBS, NPR, Sky News, TV One among others. Her op-ed articles appear in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Huffington Post and Women’s Media Center.