Officer facing murder in prisoner death opts for bench trial

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Posted: Jun 06, 2016 5:02 PM
Officer facing murder in prisoner death opts for bench trial

BALTIMORE (AP) — The Baltimore police officer facing the most serious charge stemming from the death of a 25-year-old black man whose neck was broken in the back of a transport wagon waived his right to a jury trial on Monday, instead opting to place his fate in the hands of a judge.

Officer Caesar Goodson, 46, faces second-degree "depraved-heart" murder, manslaughter, assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment charges stemming from Freddie Gray's death on April 19, 2015. Gray died a week after he suffered a critical spinal injury in the back of Goodson's transport wagon.

Goodson opted to have his case heard by a judge rather than a jury at a motions hearing presided over by Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams.

Opening statements are scheduled to begin Thursday morning.

Prosecutors say Goodson is the most culpable in Gray's death and that he was grossly negligent when he failed to buckle Gray, who was in handcuffs and leg shackles, into a seat belt, and call an ambulance when he indicated he needed medical aid.

Goodson is one of six officers charged in Gray's arrest and death, but the only one who didn't make a statement to investigators.

Gray's death last year prompted protests and rioting across vast swaths of the city, and his name became a rallying cry in the national conversation about the treatment of black men by police in the U.S. In the wake of Gray's death, the city's police commissioner was abruptly fired. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who was widely criticized for her handling of the civil unrest that followed, announced she wouldn't run for re-election.

Legal experts say Goodson's decision to waive his right to a jury isn't surprising given the circumstance of the case. Police officers, who elicit strong emotional reactions from citizens when standing trial for crimes, often opt for judge trials because it reduces the risk of conviction, according to Guyora Binder, a law professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law who is familiar with the case.

"The Freddie Gray case has gotten a lot of attention and there was a great deal of public outrage in Baltimore as well as across the country, so there is good reason for the defense to fear that a Baltimore jury would be very willing to convict a police officer as being responsible for Freddie Gray's death," Binder said. He added that a judge will be less likely than a jury to assume the defendant is guilty simply because of the result: Gray's death.

"Juries tend to over-attribute culpability when there's a bad result," he said. "They tend to attribute results to intentionality. Judges understand that culpability has to be proven and not simply assumed from the result. It's more likely the prosecution will be held to its burden of proof in the elements of the offense."

Williams, 53, has been a Baltimore judge since 2005. Previously, he worked as a trial attorney and later special litigation counsel for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, where he prosecuted police officers in misconduct cases.

James Cohen, a professor at Fordham University who has followed the case, said Goodson's choice is unsurprising, and could be advantageous.

"He only needs to convince one person of reasonable doubt, and he's convincing a very informed person," he said. Judges, Cohen said, unlike juries will automatically take into consideration the "chaos that is part of the danger" of being a police officer when weighing his decision.

Williams ruled Monday on several pretrial motions. He granted a defense bid to prevent Syreeta Teel, an investigator who interviewed another officer charged in the case and took the stand during his trial, from being called as a witness against Goodson.

Teel is one of two departmental investigators who interviewed Officer William Porter, whose first trial ended in a mistrial in December. Before Porter made an official taped statement to Teel, the two spoke on the phone informally. Teel testified that Porter told her Gray said he couldn't breathe during one of the transport wagon's stops. In his official statement, Porter made no mention of Gray's complaint.

An appeals court ruled that the officers in the Gray case can be forced to testify against each other, and Porter could be called as a witness against Goodson, Williams said Monday. But Teel's statements are only relevant to Porter, Williams said, and agreed with the defense that she should be excluded from the upcoming trial.

Williams sided with the state on most of the remaining motions, denying the defense's request to dismiss the assault charge, and to suppress portions of the autopsy report.

Gray was arrested April 12 outside of the Gilmor Homes housing complex in West Baltimore. Prosecutors say he was handcuffed and placed inside a transport wagon with Goodson at the wheel. A few blocks away, the wagon stopped and three officers took him out, secured him in leg shackles and slid him back into the wagon's compartment, head-first and on his belly. He was never strapped into a seat belt. The wagon made three more stops before its final stop at the Western District station house. At that point, Gray was unconscious.

Goodson is the only officer who was present at every wagon stop, and other officers have testified that it was his responsibility to ensure the safety of the prisoner in his custody.

After the hearing on Monday, a small group of protesters gathered outside the courthouse, holding yellow signs and banners calling for justice for Freddie Gray.

The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, a vocal activist against police brutality in the city, said he was deeply disappointed with Goodson's decision to waive his right to a jury trial and instead proceed before a judge.

Last month, Williams acquitted Officer Edward Nero, who faced misdemeanor charges in the Gray case and also chose a judge trial.

"We've suffered so much already in the midst of this trial that we would hope that we would have had Baltimore City residents be part of a jury process, to have an opportunity to decide this officer's guilt or innocence," Witherspoon said Monday. "We've already suffered so much, we've been through an ordeal and the decision is devastating."

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This story has been edited to correct the name of the school: the University at Buffalo School of Law.