Depraved Heart, Pt. 2: Inside The Courtroom At Lt. Brian Rice’s Acquittal In The Death Of Freddie Gray
Yesterday, July 18th, in a crowded courtroom in Baltimore City, Officer Edward Nero and Officer Caesar Goodson exchanged smiles as they sat in the front row squeezed together between their lawyers. Both Nero and Goodson have already been acquitted in a bench trial by Judge Barry Williams in trials relating to the death of Freddie Gray. Now, you can add Lieutenant Brian Rice‘s name to the list as he became the third officer out of six that has been acquitted.
Rice, 42, was the highest ranking officer of those charged in the death of Freddie Gray. Charged with involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office, the crux of the case boiled down to whether the decision not to seat belt Gray was a criminal violation and what was the state of mind of Rice when he made the decision not to do so. Was the decision to not seat belt Gray an indication that he had the intent to harm him? “This crime was a crime of omission, rather than commission,” said University of Baltimore law professor David Jaros. “It is a very hard case to convict on.”
During closing arguments, the prosecution argued that Rice showed a reckless disregard for Gray’s life by throwing him into the transport wagon face down, shackled and handcuffed onto a dirty floor and failed to seat belt him. Professor Janice Bledsoe argued that as a commanding officer that had been on the force for 18 years, Rice understood policy. According to police general orders, officers are required to seatbelt detainees, although there is room for discretion based on safety issues. Five days before Freddie Gray’s arrest, any discretion for seat belting detainees was removed in an update on the policy.
It was up to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that not only did Rice know about the revised policy, but that he intentionally disregarded it with the intent to harm Gray. The defense argued that Rice had discretion on whether to seat belt Gray, because there was a growing crowd surrounding the van that appeared to be threatening. Brandon Ross, a friend of Gray’s who recorded the arrest on his cell phone, painted a picture of Rice as hostile to the community asking questions about Gray’s detaining. “I need a supervisor, this ain’t right,” Ross testified that he told Officer Porter who then directed him to Rice. “Excuse my language, but Officer Rice was being a jerk,” Ross said in court, testifying that Rice threatened to take him and take him to jail if he didn’t go home.
With video evidence provided to the courts, which included cell phone and CCTV footage, the prosecution showed that the crowd was sparse. Bledsoe argued that there were five police officers on the scene who could have aided Rice if he was having trouble attaching Gray’s seat belt. The prosecution painted Rice as an officer who was escalating tensions with onlookers, rather than de-escalating the situation during Gray’s arrest by threatening those in the community with arrest and jail time. The prosecution wasn’t allowed to argue that civil suits relating to “rough rides” have cost taxpayers millions of dollars in settlements for passengers who were not in seat belts, without having a witness that could testify that they had warned the police department that not seat belting passengers was becoming a liability.
Flashback to last October, the city of Baltimore paid $95,000 to settle a federal lawsuit filed by a John Hopkins University librarian who alleged she was subjected to a rough ride in 2012. The librarian said police didn’t buckle her in before “maniacally” driving around after her arrest at a party on charges that were later dropped. At least three citizens have been paralyzed from rides in police transport vans with one person ending up as a quadriplegic. Ultimately, Judge Barry Williams ruled that Rice had discretion in seat belting because of the growing crowd that could have been seen as threatening from Rice’s point of view.
Without culpability in terms of seat belting Gray, Williams ruled in favor of Rice, citing that he was not guilty on all three counts.
“The judge did a good analysis of the case according to the law,” said Kevin W. Parson, who has followed the case since its inception. “There is a difference between a civil case and a criminal case in terms of the burden of proof.” Attorney J. Wyndal Gordon, who has also followed the case, was not surprised by the verdict. “The evidence is not there. Prosecutors have to rely on police to prosecute [the] police. You have hostile witnesses. With the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights officers have 10 days to obtain counsel and come up with a story before they are [even] interrogated. This is why there are problems with police accountability.”
Ericka Blount is a journalist, professor and author from Baltimore, Maryland. Her book ‘Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of Soul Train’ is available on Amazon. Please follow her (and us!) on Twitter @ErickaBlount.