By Kevin Rector and Justin Fenton

A circuit judge ruled Wednesday that the case against six Baltimore police officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray will go forward in separate trials, with Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby remaining at the helm of the prosecution.

During a day of hearings in a downtown courtroom, Judge Barry Williams swiftly sliced through complex legal arguments in the first motions hearing. In three key rulings issued from the bench, he refused to dismiss the charges or recuse Mosby and decided that the case should be split to ensure that each officer gets a fair trial.

Williams said that trying the officers together would not be "in the interest of justice" because key evidence that's admissible with regards to one officer may be inadmissible for another. The officers are charged with a range of offenses, from murder to misconduct, as each played a different role in Gray's arrest and transport.

The case has sparked widespread protests in Baltimore -- which continued Wednesday -- and has become part of a national dialogue about police treatment of black citizens. Gray, 25, died in April one week after suffering a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody.

Outside the courtroom, dozens of protesters gathered in peaceful demonstrations and marches through downtown that resulted in one arrest and snarled traffic. Even at this early stage of the court proceedings, organizers said they wanted their voices heard.

"It's a step in the right direction," Malcolm Wilson said of Williams' rulings on defense motions to recuse Mosby and dismiss the case. The 23-year-old East Baltimore resident, who said he knew Gray, clutched a white cardboard sign that read, "I am here for Justice for Mr. Gray."

Police, who had been criticized for their response to previous demonstrations and rioting, repeatedly ordered protesters to "remain on the sidewalk" and quickly responded to one tense moment near the Inner Harbor in which a protester was arrested and an officer suffered minor injuries.

Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said police wanted to treat "a protest like a protest," and that "by and large, that's exactly what happened." Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake praised the department, saying she and police "will vigorously defend the First Amendment rights of the protesters, but we will also vigorously enforce the order in our city."

In the courtroom, filled with legal observers and media after months of sharply written legal filings filled with accusations lobbed between the defense and prosecution, Williams sought to maintain order.

He stopped the proceedings to remind those present to turn off all electronics, warning that he would remove everyone but the attorneys. He frequently interrupted the attorneys during their arguments, to seek clarification on a key point, wryly disagree or keep the attorneys on topic.

The officers had waived their rights to attend Wednesday's hearing, and Gray's family did not attend.

While the oral arguments on the dismissal and recusal motions largely reflected those made in written filings -- which often centered on Mosby's actions -- the arguments over whether to try the officers separately provided new insights into defense and prosecution theories.

Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr., the driver of the police van in which Gray was injured, is charged with second-degree depraved-heart murder. Sgt. Alicia D. White, Lt. Brian W. Rice and Officer William G. Porter are charged with manslaughter. Officers Edward M. Nero and Garrett E. Miller face lesser charges, including second-degree assault. All six have been charged with misconduct in office.

Partially redacted statements by several of the officers were submitted to the court on Wednesday, though under seal, as were police dispatch tapes.

Prosecutors previously indicated that they wanted to try Goodson, White, Nero and Miller together in one trial, and Porter and Rice together in a second trial.

However, at the hearing Wednesday, they only sought to have Goodson, White and Nero tried together. Deputy State's Attorney Janice Bledsoe argued that much of the evidence in the case was relevant to those three officers.

She said all of the evidence related to what happened to Gray from his arrest to his arrival unresponsive at the Western District police station would be needed to prove reckless endangerment on their part.

But Marc Zayon, Nero's attorney, said Gray's arrest and transport constituted two separate incidents. He said evidence brought to support the felony charges against Goodson and White, including expert witness testimony on Gray's injuries sustained in the van and evidence regarding how Goodson was driving, would be highly prejudicial if introduced in a case against Nero.

Defense attorneys also raised concerns that statements by the officers could incriminate one of the co-defendants, pitting one's right not to take the stand with another's right to confront his or her accuser.

Matthew Fraling, an attorney for Goodson, also said he was concerned about a "transfer of guilt" and a "spillover effect" in the minds of jurors trying to categorize evidence against different defendants.

In denying the state's motion to join the cases, Williams agreed that much of the evidence would not be "mutually admissible." His ruling means there will be six trials.

Arguments over dismissing the charges and recusing Mosby came after a flurry of heatedly written motions over the past four months. In court Wednesday, Williams cautioned both sides to tone down their rhetoric.

"The unnecessary name calling and over-the-top rhetoric to which this court has been required to wade in order to get to the heart of the legal issues in this case is remarkable," Williams said.

Moving forward, he said, attorneys should be mindful of crafting fact-backed arguments in a way that will "assist the court in understanding the legal issues -- not to get the best media sound bites."

Many of the most contentious filings have been made over Mosby's actions, particularly when she announced charges against the six officers from the steps of the Baltimore War Memorial on May 1. "To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America, I heard your call for 'no justice no peace,'" she said at the time.

Mosby spoke less than a week after protests turned into clashes with police and rioting, looting and arson across the city, resulting in more than 100 police officers being injured, more than 400 damaged businesses, and hundreds of arrests. Rawlings-Blake responded by imposing a citywide curfew, and Gov. Larry Hogan deployed the National Guard.

(c)2015 The Baltimore Sun