By Justin Fenton and Kevin Rector

A Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled Thursday morning that the trials of six police officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray will stay in Baltimore, saying the defense had failed to prove that the officers cannot receive a fair trial in the city.

"The citizens of Baltimore are not monolithic," Judge Barry Williams said in his ruling. "They think for themselves."

Williams heard arguments from defense attorneys who said that intense media coverage and this week's surprise multimillion-dollar settlement with Gray's family, along with fear of future unrest, created an atmosphere in which jurors would be biased.

Prosecutors, however, urged that moving the case before screening potential jurors would be premature.

Williams agreed, saying it was wrong to "assume they cannot be fair" without questioning individual potential jurors. Williams was unconvinced that media coverage had influenced citizens _ at least not any more than residents of other jurisdictions, saying the coverage had been "local, state, national, international."

The defense attorneys had also argued that comments from public officials may have influenced potential jurors, but Williams said citizens have shown that comments from their leaders "sometimes mean very little to them."

Williams, who previously ruled that each officer should be tried individually, left open the possibility that the trials could be moved if an impartial jury panel can't be found.

Michael Schatzow, the chief deputy of the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office, argued that the court should try to find an impartial panel. "Nobody knows what the sentiment of the jurors are until you ask them questions about it" during jury selection, Schatzow said to Williams. He said the notion that an unbiased panel can't be found among nearly 300,000 potential jurors was "insulting to the citizenry of Baltimore."

Schatzow also argued that the rioting was confined to a small geographic area in the city, and that most potential jurors "were inconvenienced at worst."

He said the state "concedes" that the case has been surrounded by unprecedented publicity, but said "that's not the issue; it's never been the issue."

Ivan Bates, an attorney for Sgt. Alicia White, argued for the defense that city residents were under siege during the April unrest and confined to their homes by the curfew, and as jurors would feel pressure to convict the officers to prevent more disturbances.

"They will know they must find our client guilty so they can go home to their community," Bates said.

Williams said the court will reconvene at 2 p.m. to discuss other issues. It was not immediately clear what those issues are.

Thursday's pretrial motions hearing follows one held last week, in which Williams ruled against defense motions to dismiss the charges against the officers and to recuse State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby and her team from the case. The judge also ruled that the six officers will have separate trials.

Gray, 25, died in April after suffering a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody. His death set off a week of protests against police brutality, and his funeral was followed by rioting, looting and arson that damaged hundreds of businesses. Gov. Larry Hogan called in the National Guard and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake instituted a weeklong nightly curfew to restore order.

Thursday's hearing came one day after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration approved an extraordinary $6.4 million civil settlement with Gray's family.

Rawlings-Blake said the settlement was meant to allow the Gray family and the city to move forward, and to clear the officers of civil liability as they move through the criminal process. City Solicitor George Nilson said the city wanted to finalize the settlement prior to the venue hearing because, had it announced the deal after a decision by Williams to keep the trials in Baltimore, defense attorneys could have used it to file new motions to remove the case.

Police union officials criticized the settlement, particularly its timing. Fraternal Order of Police President Gene Ryan said Wednesday the settlement would prejudice potential city jurors.

The six officers involved in his arrest and death face charges ranging from second-degree murder to assault. All have pleaded not guilty. A trial date in the Gray case is scheduled for Oct. 13, though it could be pushed back.

(c)2015 The Baltimore Sun