The first verdict of the 6 Baltimore police officers cases involving the death of Freddie Gray will come on Monday, May 23. And despite the concerns of some in the police community that Judge Williams might be swayed by emotions, that is a non-issue. Officer Edward Nero chose a bench trial before Judge Barry Williams instead of a jury trial. And his fate will be sealed by Judge Williams’ decision based on sound legal principle and judgment. And the verdict may surprise many who have followed the trial.
All judges are not created equal. And Judge Williams ranks heads above most judges for his intelligence, judicial temperament, sometimes wit and at all times no nonsense approach. And above all, Judge Williams is fair to wall sides as his previous rulings in the cases of William Porter and Edward Nero will support. That may be the real reason, the defense chose a bench trial—for his fairness and legal intellect.
I suspect as a former Baltimore prosecutor that Judge Williams will aptly apply the law to the facts or evidence presented in a well -reasoned and well researched lengthy legal opinion which he will read from the bench on Monday. Above all, he will hold the state to their high burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt- one that they may have failed to meet in some of these charges.
As a legal observer, the Nero trial has some nuances that are rare in a criminal case and particularly in a police officer case charged with assault. And the state is pushing the legal limit on the assault charge, like driving slightly above 60 miles per hour in a 60 mile per hour zone. If successful with a guilty verdict, new legal ground may be advanced by their theory. The assault theory is based on the fact that Freddie Gray’s arrest lacked probable cause—an argument normally reserved for the defense charged with a crime. But in the Nero case, everything is flipped on its head. The verdict will have an impact on the other two bicycle police officers Miller and Rice whose cases and state’s legal theory are similar to Nero.
And on the charge of reckless endangerment, the state argues use of seat belt police protocol is for the safety of the arrestees. And yet the defense argues the use of the seat belt was unsafe for police officers. The main issue is whether Nero had sufficient contact with Freddie Gray to support a reckless endangerment conviction. Nero’s contact with Gray was minimized by the defense. And although the defense placed blame on the van driver, Caesar Goodson, there may be more than one officer found guilty for the same charge.
I suspect the misconduct in office charge is where the state might be close to getting a guilty verdict. The assault and reckless endangerment charges are a long shot–at the very least. On the misconduct in office charge, if Nero had the opportunity to restrain Gray, should have known about the recent police order requiring it, but did not follow basic police protocols, including use of a seat belt on Gray, he could be found guilty for misconduct in office. Whether he will be convicted depends on the legal sufficiency of the state’s evidence. The facts must always line up with the law. And that’s the problem with the state’s case and the charges in Nero’s case. If the facts don’t fit the law, the judge must acquit Edward Nero.
Judge Williams’ verdict in the Nero case will likely set the tone for the next 5 police officers’ trials. Above all else, Judge Barry Williams’ verdict will be fair, well researched and based on sound legal principle.
UPDATE: The article was revised to include Monday, May 23 as the day for the verdict. There was a joint stipulation entered after the original posting of the article. The stipulation entered into by both sides states that the area was a high crime area may cause an even more uphill climb for any guilty verdict on the assault charge. Closing arguments are on Thursday, May 19. A follow up article after attending the closing arguments will be posted.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore City prosecutor. She frequently appears on Al Jazeera, BET, CBS, CCTV, Fox 5 DC, MSNBC, PBS, Sky News, among others. Her Op Ed articles on criminal justice appear in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Huffington Post.