The case of Freddie Gray personally hit me very hard. I was born and grew up in Baltimore. As a former Baltimore City prosecutor, I prosecuted major crimes there for 5 years. I know the area known as Western District where Freddie Gray was arrested. I also know that over the years and for decades, Baltimore Police have engaged in police brutality and excessive force resulting in settlements and judgments. A. Dwight Pettit, a Baltimore attorney, has successfully represented many victims of police brutality for as long as I can remember, in the pre-social media days and even today. Now with video and social media, what was once hidden for many years is now coming to light in Baltimore.
There must be an independent investigation by the Maryland State Prosecutor, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office or the Maryland State Police. The Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has initiated an independent investigation to determine if Gray’s civil rights were violated. Baltimore Police state their investigation will conclude by May 1. Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, stated her office will conduct an independent investigation to determine if criminal charges are warranted. Her office does not function on an independent basis. The State Attorney’s office works in tandem, in most instances, with the Baltimore police.
In September 2012, Anthony Anderson’s spleen was ruptured during a drug arrest as he was thrown to the ground by police. Anderson died a short time later. The state medical examiner’s office said the death was a homicide caused by blunt force trauma. But former Baltimore State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein declined to bring charges, ruling that the officers did not use excessive force and followed police guidelines.
And in the Freddie Gray case, there are ways the Baltimore prosecutors could yet again avoid prosecuting the police for excessive force. The New York Times spoke to physician, Ben A. Barres at Stanford School of Medicine who says it doesn’t take that much force to sever a spleen. “It doesn’t necessarily take huge force to fracture or dislocate a vertebra, and have a traumatic compression of the spinal cord,” said Ben A. Barres, professor of neurobiology at the Stanford School of Medicine. “It gets worse very rapidly if it’s not treated.” And, he said, “moving the person, like lifting him into a van, or even the ride in the van, could make the injury much worse.” That is the likely police defense to a case of excessive force. And the Medical Examiner’s has not yet ruled Gray’s death a homicide.
As a former Baltimore City State’s attorney, I know that police and prosecutors work together on a daily basis. I believe it’s quite difficult, although not impossible, for a Baltimore prosecutor to see police excessive force cases through an objective lens. Their lens are cloudy from working with police on a daily basis and often forging strong friendships and personal relationships with them. While the State’s Attorney’s office is separate from the police department, in many aspects, they are intertwined together. Separate but close is one way to describe the interaction between the two. It is a symbiotic relationship between the two. Prosecutors rely on the police to obtain convictions for their statistics. And whether consciously or subconsciously, prosecutors are more inclined to see police excessive force events through the eyes of the police rather than more objectively.
And then there is Code of Blue silence. It is not likely that any one of the six officers will speak against any officer who may have injured Gray. And as long as they stick together, knowledge of what exactly happened is less likely to be known. There was no video inside the police van. Even with video in the Eric Garner choking case, a Grand Jury still declined to pursue charges against the officers. And without credible eyewitness accounts, the code of blue could prevail. And what the investigation will likely be left with is a circumstantial case of what happened, who did it and how did it occur. Some eyewitnesses may live close by or in the area where Gray was arrested. And their criminal backgrounds or credibility will undoubtedly become an issue.
Twenty-five year old Freddie Gray was someone’s son, friend and neighbor. And he did not deserve to die for the non-crime of running while black. Saying change is needed in the Baltimore Police Department is an understatement. I don’t have the answers as to what will bring systemic change to excessive force used against African Americans by police. A start would be to criminally charge the perpetrators when these crimes occur. Whether Baltimore prosecutors will take the necessary initial action for justice remains to be seen. With three African Americans in charge, Mayor Rawlings-Blake, Police Commissioner Batts and State’s Attorney Mosby, one would like to hope that the investigation and story ending will be different for Freddie Gray than Eric Garner. Knowing the symbiotic relationship of the local prosecutors and police, I don’t necessarily expect a different ending. And that’s why independent state and federal investigations must take place.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore City prosecutor. She is frequently seen on Al Jazeera America, BET, C-Span, Fox 5, RT America, Sky News, and TV One, among others.