Depraved Heart: Inside The Courtroom At Caesar Goodson's Acquittal In The Death Of Freddie Gray
A still from WBAL-TV broadcast of footage capturing the arrest of Freddie Gray last April
State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby sat stone-faced in the middle of the courtroom's first row as Judge Barry Williams prepared to read his verdict in the trial of Officer Caesar Goodson, who faced murder charges in the death of Freddie Gray.The mood was anxious. Edward Nero, the officer acquitted a few weeks ago, sat in the front row on the left side in front of reporters. Goodson, the van driver who transported Freddie Gray, was facing the most serious charges of any of the six officers and his was the most important trial for the prosecution.
As Judge Williams read the last not guilty verdict for the seven charges against Goodson, members of Goodson’s family sitting in the center aisle wept and hugged each other. Nero cried out: “Yes!”
Goodson faced charges of 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 national media descended on the courtroom for the last day of the trial. Many asked the question: “Will there be more rioting?”
They asked because they didn’t understand the resignation that had already set in; the feeling that there was little hope for justice for the kinds of harassment by police around Baltimore that had become normalized. Baltimore has been here many times before. In fact, young, black disenfranchised men and women in cities around the country already knew the inevitable ending of this courtroom drama before the verdict was read
“We can’t get justice in the courts, so we have to get it in the streets,” said Sharon Black, a white woman who is an activist with the People’s Power Assembly in Baltimore. “It’s going to take mobilizing and bigger efforts to make sure justice is served. It’s a systemic problem, not just a few officers. Poor people are abused regularly in this city, black people are abused regularly in this city and that has to change.”
When Angelique Herbert, the paramedic on call that nightback in April 2015, witnessed the shape that Freddie Gray was in after riding in the police van, she looked at three officers, Caesar Goodson, William Porter and Zach Novak and yelled: “What the f--- did you guys do?”
Herbert testified that Gray’s eyes were open and not blinking. His neck felt "crumbly...like a box of rocks." He had blood under his nose. He wasn’t breathing or responding to verbal cues and the smell of feces showed that he was incontinent.
The prosecution sought to prove second-degree depraved heart murder with CCTV video of an alleged “rough ride,” where they claimed Goodson sustained his injury. In the video Goodson could be seen driving through a stop sign and rounding a corner by driving over the dividing line. Judge Barry Williams argued that it was impossible to see in the video whether Goodson stopped well before the stop sign and that the state provided “insufficient” evidence to prove that it was a rough ride—a ride in which police officers intentionally accelerate, stop abruptly or drive erratically with a detainee unprotected by a seatbelt in order to jostle them around, often times to punish them or to force a confession.
Much of the CCTV footage in the arrest of Gray was erased or faulty with glitches that caused it to freeze or was inoperative because of a power failure. One of the cameras at the intersection of Baker and Mount, where Goodson got out of the van and went to the rear of the vehicle, simply froze. Another camera at the stop was missing three of the six minutes during which the van was parked at the corner. That video was key to determining why Goodson made that stop after rounding the curve. It was a stop that he did not call in to his supervisor to report...
Six officers were charged in the death of Freddie Gray. Goodson, who faced the most serious charges, was the third to be tried and the second to be acquitted.
Goodson was the only one of the six officers who did not give a police statement. He still faces an internal review by the police department where he could potentially lose his job.
The lesser charge of misconduct in office, related specifically to seat belting Gray, which is required by police general orders, but can be at the officer’s discretion depending on safety issues. When Williams read the verdict of “not guilty” he explained that Goodson did what any reasonable officer would have done given Gray’s “belligerent” behavior at the first and second stop, where his body went limp and he cried out, seemingly from the cell phone footage in pain. Gray was laid prone on the floor of the van, shackled and handcuffed on a studded, dirty floor. Williams agreed that the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Gray should have been seat belted at stop 4, but that Goodson deferred to decisions of other officers that did not seat belt Gray.
On more than one occasion, Gray asked for help, and in the testimony of Porter’s case, which was not allowed in this trial, that he said “I can’t breathe.” Porter asked him if he needed a medic and Gray replied: “Yes.” Porter testified in Goodson’s trial that he told Goodson that he needed to take him to a hospital because he wouldn’t pass Central Booking. Goodson did not call a medic or take him to a hospital. Williams ruled that it was impossible for Goodson to see how severe Gray’s injuries were.
“This injury manifested itself internally,” Williams read talking about Gray’s spinal injury. “That is one of the key issues here. If the doctors are not clear as to what would be happening at this point in time, how would the average person or officer without medical training know?”
The crux of the case centered around intent. The state was required to prove in many of the charges, including the lesser charge of misconduct, that Goodson acted with malicious intent. For the murder charge prosecutors would have had to prove that Goodson acted with an extreme disregard for Gray’s life.
The trials of the six officers is itself unprecedented. Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor, said that there have only been four officers convicted in nearly 10,000 civilian deaths occurring during police actions nationally.
“Police don’t get charged with these crimes,” says Colbert. “Usually these cases are dismissed behind the closed door of a grand jury. Here we have a prosecutor who conducted an independent investigation, which had to be done in this case. The police union wants police officers to decide whether to bring criminal charges, not prosecutors. The way it’s done in almost every other part of the country, the prosecutor is the gatekeeper and decides whether or not to charge someone. The subtext is the police and the union want to hold on to its power, the prosecution is trying to assert its rightful role as a legal officer. And then there’s the tension between the police union and the police commissioner and that got played out during the trial.”
“There will be more Freddie Grays and Tyrone Wests because of this bullcrap judicial system,” said Tawanda Jones, the sister of Tyrone West, who died in police custody in Baltimore. “It’s legalized genocide. Until we dismantle a corrupt system that allows this or we change laws this is going to continuously happen.”
The systemic nature of the problem is highlighted by the fact that Baltimore City is currently under a Department of Justice investigation. “Hopefully the Department of Justice will set some criteria and hopefully there will be some legislation going forward to have independent investigations when there are police shootings or death or serious injury,” said Debbie Hines, who formerly worked in the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office. “To have both independent prosecutors and an independent police investigation.”
Mosby had to have an independent investigation, many legal experts believe, in order to get the officers indicted, because under normal circumstances the police are investigating the police.
The acquittal of Goodson doesn’t bode well for future trials. “This was their best shot,” said Hines. “I was disappointed that Goodson was not found guilty. But not surprised as a citizen and formerly of the State’s Attorney’s office, because the evidence wasn’t there.”
But Tessa Hill-Aston, the president of Baltimore City’s chapter of the NAACP, believes all was not lost in the pursuit of justice in Baltimore:
“People should not look negatively at the State’s Attorney’s office. I think people should feel proud that the State’s Attorney had the strength and knowledge to take officers to court. This may save other people’s lives. Police will look at themselves on the streets when they’re dealing with people in poor communities. I hope police will be smart enough not to be dumb enough to do this again.”