On the second day of the trial in the case of Officer Caesar Goodson, the van driver who transported Freddie Gray, two witnesses who were close friends of Gray testified. One was Jamel Baker and the other was Brandon Ross, who was with Gray on the day he died and recorded the arrest on his cell phone.
Both of them looked and sounded pained at the loss of their friend. During Officer William Porter’s trial that ended in a mistrial, Ross’s voice quivered as he testified while Gray’s family loudly sobbed in the courtroom.
On Friday, prosecutor Janice Bledsoe played Ross’s cell phone footage for Judge Barry Williams.
“That’s not cool! That ain’t cool, man,” Ross’s voice is incredulous and angry in the cell audio footage as he yells at police officers dragging Gray.
A bystander asks: “Is he all right?” “No, he ain’t,” Ross answers before he asks. “Hey Porter, can we get a supervisor up here please?”
Screams and moans from Gray echoed in the courtroom as footage from Ross’s cell phone continued to play. It was a stark reminder of the human toll in a case that has received national attention, a media firestorm and interest in the sociological dissection of neglected, poor and black areas of this country.
The indictment of the six police officers involved in the arrest and transport of Gray has brought to light multiple issues concerning police and and criminal justice system: poor training and rampant dysfunction and brutality in the police department, issues around bail hearings, poor people waiting in jail for months for representation, illegal arrests and police harassment in poor black communities, and most recently, in the case of Officer Caesar Goodson, the practice of “rough rides.”
During opening statements Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Shatzow alleged that Freddie Gray received a rough ride, the first time such a practice has been mentioned in the police trials.
The practice is meant to punish a disruptive detainee and/or force a detainee to talk. It involves arresting a person, handcuffing them and intentionally putting them into a van without securing them with a seat belt. Officers then take the detainee on a journey by abruptly accelerating, braking and decelerating the vehicle. Arrestees have crashed into walls, fallen off of gurneys and died as a result of this practice.
Baltimore City has paid out millions to victims of “rough rides” who have been injured, including a man named Dondi Johnson Sr., who was paralyzed in 2005 after being recklessly driven around by police.
Goodson, the driver of the van that transported Gray, is facing the most serious charges. The charges include second-degree depraved-heart murder (a murder committed with indifference to human life), involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, manslaughter by vehicle, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. The murder charge carries a maximum sentence of 30 years.
Prosecutors referred to evidence of a rough ride that included video of Goodson running a stop sign, making a wild turn and crossing the center yellow line.
The defense argued that prosecutors won’t be able to prove that Gray’s death was intentional and contended that Gray’s death was an accident.
The case hinges on when Freddie Gray sustained his injuries and why he wasn’t seat belted.
“He will have to account for the failing to seat belt because he does that all the time, ” defense attorney Warren Brown, who has been following the case closely said about the veteran police officer. “If anyone will know the regulations on how to appropriately cart and transport a prisoner it’s going to be the operator. Question comes in whether that amounts to a criminal violation.”
Much of the reason that the prosecution has an uphill battle, and have already had one acquittal and one mistrial, is because there weren’t eye witnesses in the van where the injury occurred and CCTV video footage was erased. Video for CCTV is usually erased after every 24-hour cycle. Prosecutors have had to rely primarily on expert testimony and limited cell phone footage. Although seat belting prisoners is a police general order, testimony from officers showed that many lacked training on seat belting and as a general rule didn’t follow the policy.
Much of the cases revolve around the intent of the officers and what a “reasonable” officer would do. If none of the officers are following policy, it is “reasonable” that an officer wouldn’t seat belt a detainee. Not seat belting a detainee is also not an illegal infraction. For a bench trial, where Judge Barry Williams decides the case instead of a jury, much of it is focused around legal minutiae rather than circumstantial evidence or the emotions of the jury.
Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore City chapter of the NAACP, is optimistic despite the very real possibility that none of the cases will garner a conviction.
“I think Baltimore is being looked at and I think the indictments will make a difference in policing in the future of Baltimore,” said Hill-Aston.
But Hill-Aston realizes that Gray’s family may not be satisfied with just police reform.
“Freddie should not be dead,” said Hill-Aston about the crux of the case. “He didn’t do anything. He wasn’t guilty of anything. Eye contact does not mean you chase somebody and 5 days later he’s dead.”
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.