By Donna Owens
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - A Baltimore police officer charged with murder in the 2015 death of black detainee Freddie Gray waived a jury trial on Monday and will be tried by a Maryland judge instead.
Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., 46, is the third officer to face trial for Gray's death from a broken neck suffered in a police van. His death in April 2015 triggered protests and rioting and fueled a U.S. debate on police treatment of minorities.
Prosecutors are still looking for a conviction in the high-profile case, with two trials ending in a mistrial and an acquittal.
Goodson's last-minute decision to have Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams decide the case came during a pre-trial hearing on motions. Jury selection was to have started on Tuesday, and Goodson's trial will begin on Thursday.
Legal experts say that officers normally opt for a bench trial because they think judges are more likely to acquit or impose a lighter sentence for a conviction.
Defense lawyers have repeatedly tried to have the trials of the six officers charged in Gray's death moved from Baltimore. They contend that media coverage and the unrest have made it impossible to find an impartial jury in Baltimore, which is majority African-American.
Gray, 25, was arrested when he fled officers unprovoked in a high-crime area. He was bundled into a police transport van while shackled and was not seat-belted.
Goodson, who is African-American, was the van's driver and faces the most serious charge, that of second-degree depraved heart murder. He also is charged with three counts of manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.
In a bench trial last month, Williams acquitted Officer Edward Nero of misdemeanor charges that included second-degree assault.
The trial of Officer William Porter, who faced a manslaughter charge, ended in a hung jury in December. He is scheduled for retrial this summer.
(Writing by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler)