By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Prosecutors of Baltimore police officers charged in the death of black detainee Freddie Gray will likely stick to their arguments of illegal arrest and causing criminal injury in a transport van even though an officer was acquitted in the case this week, legal experts said.
Although it was the second setback for prosecutors who have brought charges against six officers, the narrowly focused judge's decision acquitting Officer Edward Nero suggested that the prosecution's strategy could bear fruit in at least some of the five remaining trials, the experts said.
Prosecutors could hope for a turning point in the June 6 trial of Officer Caesar Goodson, Jr.
Goodson drove the transport van in which Gray, 25, suffered a broken neck in April 2015, and he has been charged with second-degree murder.
"I have a feeling that the prosecution sees this as a closer loss than they might have expected and, if they're not emboldened, I think they're going forward with the case against Officer Goodson relatively unchanged," said David Jaros, a law professor at the University of Baltimore.
The first case brought against any of the officers charged in Gray's death ended in a mistrial last December.
The judge dismissed the jury in the involuntary manslaughter trial of Officer William Porter after 16 hours of deliberations during which it was unable to reach a verdict on any of the charges.
Porter's retrial is to be held in September.
Jaros and others have said that Nero had a minor role in the Gray case. It was widely seen as the weakest case brought by State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby's office, making it less likely that her team would change course with the acquittal, they said.
Mosby has not commented on the trial results since there is a court gag order on the cases.
Prosecutors contended that Nero arrested Gray without cause when he fled from him and two other officers unprovoked, and then failed to secure Gray in the transport van.
Gray died a week after the arrest and his death triggered rioting in the majority black city.
Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams, who heard the case in a bench trial, said prosecutors had failed to prove that Nero was involved in the arrest and should have secured Gray.
In his verdict, Williams said it was reasonable for Nero to have assumed that his superior officer, Lieutenant Brian Rice, and Goodson would decide whether Gray should be seat-belted, the analysts said.
"I think he seemed to signal that the person who ultimately has responsibility for that is the van driver, who is coincidentally the next one up, Goodson," said Warren Brown, a Baltimore defense lawyer who has followed the case.
Williams also wrote that "the detention morphed into an arrest," a view that Jaros said could prop up prosecutors' argument that Gray was arrested without justification.
That view might have bearing on the case against Officer Garrett Miller, Nero's partner, who testified under immunity that he arrested Gray and handcuffed him, Jaros said. Miller is charged with second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.
Jaros said that if he were Miller, "I would have been surprised and somewhat concerned that the judge seemed to accept the prosecution theory that this was an arrest without probable cause."
Law professor Chris O'Brien at the State University of New York at Buffalo said Miller's testimony that he had arrested Gray would make prosecuting him much more difficult since it was done under immunity.
"But in terms of the other officers (Rice and Goodson), I don't know that it will really have any impact," he said. Rice faces trial in July on charges that include involuntary manslaughter and assault.
Sergeant Alicia White, 32, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and her trial is scheduled for October.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Toni Reinhold)