Freddie Gray's Death Not an Accident, Prosecutors Allege

Baltimore prosecutors alleged Thursday that the police officer driving the van in which Freddie Gray was fatally injured gave him an intentional "rough ride," pointing to video that shows him running a stop sign and crossing the center line.
by | June 10, 2016 AT 1:45 PM

By Justin Fenton and Kevin Rector

Baltimore prosecutors alleged Thursday that the police officer driving the van in which Freddie Gray was fatally injured gave him an intentional "rough ride," pointing to video that shows him running a stop sign and crossing the center line.

The accusation was made by Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow in opening statements at the trial of Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. as prosecutors seek to convict him of second-degree depraved heart murder, three counts of manslaughter and other charges in Gray's death.

Goodson's lead defense attorney, Andrew Jay Graham, said prosecutors can't prove their case. He said testimony will show the medical examiner initially believed Gray's death to be a "freakish accident," and said the defense will dispute the timeline of the injuries by calling Donta Allen, a second detainee in the van.

He described Goodson as a good cop and docile person, and said prosecutors have overreached by charging Goodson and his fellow officers.

"An accident can be just an accident, and the cause can be the person himself," Graham said. He closed by saying, "Freddie Gray's death was a tragedy, but asking to convict a good officer to satisfy a desire to have someone to blame will just make a tragic situation worse."

The opening statements came after a 90-minute hearing in which Circuit Judge Barry Williams, who will decide Goodson's fate instead of a jury, blasted prosecutors for failing to disclose to the defense a meeting they had with Allen last year.

Williams said Schatzow, the second-highest-ranking prosecutor in Baltimore, was not grasping the rules surrounding discovery of evidence. He directed prosecutors to take inventory of the evidence in all the pending cases in Gray's arrest and death and disclose on Monday any other information they have withheld.

"My concern becomes what else is out there," Williams said to Schatzow. "If your office doesn't get (discovery obligations), I don't know where we are at this point."

Goodson is the third of six officers to go to trial in Gray's arrest and death. Last month, Officer Edward Nero, who participated in Gray's initial arrest and helped load him into the police van, was acquitted of all charges by Williams.

Before that, a hung jury in the trial of Officer William Porter resulted in a mistrial. Porter is slated to be tried again, but will be called as a witness by prosecutors at Goodson's trial to support their contention that officers had multiple opportunities to help a severely injured Gray and didn't take action.

Porter testified at his own trial that Gray did not show clear signs of injury, but also that he told Goodson that Gray should receive medical attention.

Police officers and expert witnesses have testified at the prior trials that officers routinely ignored agency rules directing that detainees be secured with a seat belt. They agreed that the ultimate responsibility fell to the van driver.

Schatzow said Goodson was "never in any danger from" Gray and had no reason not to seat-belt him.

Failing to do so caused his injuries, Schatzow said.

"He was injured because he got a 'rough ride,'" Schatzow told Williams. "He was injured because of the way the officer transported him."

Video of Gray wailing and dragging his legs during his arrest sparked cries of police brutality last April, but prosecutors are not alleging that Gray was injured in any way during his arrest. Before Thursday, prosecutors had presented evidence of a diving-type injury that caused his injuries inside the van, but had not directly alleged that Gray was hurt as a result of aggressive driving by the van driver.

Schatzow said video shows the transport van turning from Riggs Avenue onto Fremont Avenue and running a stop sign. Goodson later stopped the van, walked to the back and looked in on Gray.

"He knows Mr. Gray has been injured" at that point, Schatzow alleged. He noted that Goodson did not call in to dispatchers that he was making the stop, though his next move was to ask for another officer to come help him check on Gray.

Goodson is the only officer of the six who has not given a statement to investigators about what happened that day.

Graham contended that the call for help showed Goodson harbored no bad intent toward Gray, which he said is required for prosecutors to prove the charges against him.

Graham sought to place blame for Gray's injuries on Gray himself. When officers put Gray stomach-first on the floor of the van, they placed him in what they deemed was a safe position "if Mr. Gray had just stayed there," Graham said.

Graham said Gray had faked being hurt and caused a scene during his arrest, and officers were wary of getting too close to him inside the cramped quarters of the van.

Several officers were involved in loading Gray into the van, but Goodson was not among them. Graham said that Goodson at various points deferred to the directions of supervisors, such as when he went to pick up another prisoner instead of taking Gray to a hospital.

He said there's no evidence Goodson was aware of any medical problems requiring prompt attention.

Graham also alleged that the medical examiner who performed Gray's autopsy believed he died as a result of an accident, but changed her opinion after working with prosecutors "under a very pressurized situation."

He also indicated the defense plans to call Allen as a witness. Allen told police on April 12, the day of Gray's arrest and seven days before he died, that Gray was bashing his head into a partition that divides the back of the van. Allen later publicly recanted, saying he only heard a faint tapping.

At a hearing Thursday morning before the trial, Williams determined that prosecutors had violated discovery rules by not disclosing a meeting they had with Allen in May 2015, in the presence of his attorney, Jack Rubin. Rubin last week notified defense attorneys about the meeting, and they asked that Williams dismiss the charges against Goodson.

Schatzow told Williams that the meeting was unproductive, and said prosecutors didn't believe they were required to alert the defense to such a meeting. Schatzow added that he believed Allen had been coached to lie by police in exchange for not being charged with drugs found in his pockets that day, though he admitted he had no evidence of such a claim.

Williams said Schatzow's position on disclosure was wrong, and it caused the judge to be concerned about other information being withheld.

"I'm not saying you did anything nefarious. I'm saying you don't understand what 'exculpatory' means," Williams said, referring to the type of information prosecutors must disclose to the defense.

Williams has twice previously ruled that prosecutors failed to turn over information in the case. He told Schatzow he would hold him "personally accountable" for anything found in their weekend review of evidence, and said Schatzow and the state's attorney's office could face sanctions.

Prosecutors called seven witnesses Thursday afternoon, including an officer who supervised Goodson's field training in 2000 and other trainers who taught him first aid and how to load a prisoner into a police car.

Herbert Reynolds, the first-aid instructor, said officers are taught they have a "duty" to seek medical aid and that it is not up to them to decide whether a prisoner is faking injury. Under cross-examination, he agreed there was no duty to act if the officer didn't "readily" observe medical distress.

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