By Donna Owens
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - The fourth Baltimore police officer facing charges in the death of black detainee Freddie Gray opted for a bench trial on Tuesday as prosecutors seek their first conviction in the high-profile case.
Lieutenant Brian Rice, 42, is the highest ranking of the six officers charged in Gray's death in April 2015. He died after suffering a broken neck while being transported in a police transport van.
His death a week after being arrested triggered rioting in which nearly 400 buildings were damaged or destroyed in the majority black city of 620,000 people. The case helped stoke the national debate over policing in minority communities.
During a pretrial hearing, Rice elected to have Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams decide his fate rather than a jury. Williams has acquitted two officers, and a jury deadlocked in a third case.
Williams rejected a defense motion to drop the charges. The trial starts on Thursday morning.
Rice was in charge of a bicycle patrol and ordered other officers to pursue Gray when he fled unprovoked in a high-crime area.
Rice is charged with involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, two counts of misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. He is free on $350,000 bail.
Prosecutors allege that Rice failed to secure Gray, 25, with a seat belt when he helped put him into the van while shackled.
Department protocol calls for detainees to wear a seat belt in vans. But defense lawyers have argued in previous cases that officers had the discretion not to use a seat belt if a detainee was combative.
Prosecutors' failure to secure a conviction has led some analysts to contend that State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby overreached with the charges filed during the height of the unrest.
Williams acquitted the van driver, Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., of all charges last month, including second-degree murder. He also cleared Officer Edward Nero of lesser charges.
A jury deadlocked in December in the involuntary manslaughter trial of Officer William Porter. He faces a retrial in September.
Gray's death came at a time of national debate over the use of lethal force by police, especially against unarmed black men amid questionable deaths in several cities, including New York, Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri. The deaths and ensuing protests gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
(Writing by Ian Simpson; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)