By Kevin Rector and Justin Fenton
Prosecutors dropped one of the five charges against Baltimore Police Lt. Brian Rice -- misconduct in office based on an alleged illegal arrest -- before launching into opening statements in his trial Thursday morning.
Rice, 42, is the fourth of six officers to stand trial in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old who suffered a severe injury in the back of a police van in April 2015 and died a week later.
Prosecutors are pushing forward with the remaining charges against Rice -- involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and a second misconduct in office charge -- despite the acquittal of two other officers on similar and more serious charges by Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams, who is also presiding over Rice's trial.
During his opening statement, Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow presented no new factual allegations , and did not cite Rice's statement to police investigators. He stressed Rice's position as the highest-ranking officer on duty in the Western District on the day of Gray's arrest, with authority over the other officers there.
"He was in charge," Schatzow said.
Schatzow said as "a highly trained and promoted lieutenant," Rice knew the department's general orders required him to secure Gray with a seat belt in the back of the van and ensure his safety.
"He knew it, and he ignored it," Schatzow said.
If Rice was concerned that Gray presented a danger to him or others, preventing his being seat-belted, Rice could have "ordered every officer there to assist him," Schatzow said.
The charge that was dropped related to the arrest of Gray, in which Schatzow conceded Rice was not directly involved.
Chaz Ball, an attorney for Rice, countered that theory in his own opening statement, saying that Rice made a "9 second assessment" that it was too dangerous based on a growing crowd at the arrest scene, Gray's combativeness and the confined space of the van's rear compartment.
Ball said Gray was "banging and belligerent, he was kicking and combative." He said Gray was most combative, and the crowd was the most "irate," at the stop where Rice was most involved -- helping to explain his decision.
He also said Gray was not presenting any obvious injury -- blood, vomiting, distress or trauma -- at the stops that Rice was involved in his handling.
Rice's actions, Ball said, were "absolutely, 100 percent reasonable," and Gray's death was "a tragic, freak accident that nobody could have foreseen."
Rice has elected for a bench trial, leaving his legal fate in Williams' hands rather than a jury of city residents.
At Tuesday's pretrial hearing, prosecutors were dealt a blow when Williams ruled they could not present evidence of Rice's training since becoming an officer. The judge said prosecutors violated discovery rules when -- just days ago -- they turned over to the defense 4,000 pages of documents related to Rice's training.
Officers' training has been a key component of the Baltimore state's attorney's office's case against the officers. Prosecutors allege that the officers knowingly acted against Police Department guidelines in their arrest and transport of Gray.
Based on Schatzow's opening remarks, the prosecution will focus on Rice's rank to establish that he knew the guidelines and the risks associated with breaking them. Schatzow noted that acquiring the ranks of both sergeant and lieutenant require "studying for" and passing exams on general orders, and said Rice is "not an inexperienced officer."
Rice is the fourth officer to stand trial in the Gray case. The trial of Officer William Porter ended with a hung jury and mistrial last December, and officers Edward Nero and Caesar Goodson Jr. were acquitted of all charges by Williams in bench trials in May and June.
Rice was hired by the Baltimore Police Department in 1997 and promoted to lieutenant in 2011.
Following the Rice trial, three more Baltimore police officers charged in Gray's arrest and death are set to go on trial. Rice's trial is to be followed by those of Officer Garrett Miller (July 27), Porter (Sept. 6) and Sgt. Alicia White (Oct. 13).
All the officers have pleaded not guilty.
Following both sides' opening remarks, the prosecution put its first witness on the stand: Assistant State Medical Examiner Dr. Carol Allan. Allan ruled Gray's death a homicide.
It is unclear how long the trial will last, though Ball suggested in his opening remarks that it would likely take "five or six days."
(c)2016 The Baltimore Sun