By Ian Simpson
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Jury selection began on Monday for the trial of the first of six police officers charged in the April death of a black man in police custody that set off rioting in the city and inflamed an already tense U.S. debate on race and justice.
Officer William Porter, 26, faces charges including manslaughter, second-degree assault and misconduct in office for the death of Freddie Gray, 25. He succumbed to a spinal injury suffered in the back of a police van after he was taken into custody for fleeing an officer and possessing a knife.
Porter, who is black, is accused of ignoring Gray's requests for medical aid and not putting a seatbelt on him, even though he was shackled and handcuffed. He could face more than 25 years in prison if convicted of all charges.
Protests, rioting and looting flared in the largely black city after Gray's death, and National Guard troops were sent in and a curfew imposed to restore order. Gray's death followed police killings of black men in other cities, including Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement that has lead largely peaceful protests punctuated by bouts of violence.
Porter's trial gets underway days after a Chicago police officer was charged with murder after a dashboard camera showed him shooting a black teenager 16 times.
Judge Barry Williams told the roughly 75 potential jurors that the trial would run no later than Dec. 17, with opening arguments in the next day or two. The jury will have 12 members and up to four alternates.
As Williams began winnowing jurors by asking a series of questions, all said they were aware of the Gray case and the unrest that followed it.
About half said they or an immediate family member had been a victim of crime or had brushes with the law, including prison time or pending charges. Williams, jurors, prosecutors and defense lawyers met in the judge's chambers for individual questions.
Williams also read out the names of more than 200 potential witnesses, about half of them police officers, to see if jurors had social or business relationships with them.
The other officers are charged with offenses ranging from second-degree murder for van driver Officer Caesar Goodson to misconduct.
Prosecutors have said they want Porter to stand trial first so they can use him as a potential witness against Goodson and Sergeant Alicia White.
Porter's lawyers have said in court papers that he was ready to testify in his own defense. Three of the six officers, including Porter, are black, and three are white.
About 20 protesters gathered outside the courthouse in downtown Baltimore and were audible inside the courtroom. They chanted, "No justice, no peace, no killer police," and "We won't stop until killer cops are in cell blocks."
"We're really hoping not only that there is an indictment, but a conviction and that the police receive the same justice that anybody else in the street would receive, that they get jail time," said Sharon Black, an organizer with the People's Power Assembly, an activist group.
Starting dates for the other trials are from Jan. 6 to March 9. Baltimore agreed in September to pay a $6.4 million civil settlement to Gray's family.
(Additional reporting by Donna Owens; Editing by Scott Malone and Dan Grebler)