BALTIMORE (AP) — The death of a black prisoner whose neck was broken in a Baltimore police transport wagon should have been classified as an accident rather than a homicide, according to a medical examiner called to testify by attorneys for the officer who was driving the van.
Officer Caesar Goodson, 46, who also is black, faces second-degree murder, manslaughter and other charges stemming from the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man who died a week after suffering a critical spinal injury in Goodson's transport wagon while he was handcuffed and shackled, but left unrestrained by a seat belt.
Goodson's trial began Thursday. Prosecutors say Goodson gave Gray a "rough ride," leaving him intentionally unbuckled in order to "bounce him around" in the wagon's cab. The state also contends that Goodson was negligent when he failed to call for medical aid after Gray requested help during the fourth of the van's six total stops along its 45-minute drive from Gray's arrest site to the Western District station house, where the prisoner arrived unconscious.
A pair of defense witnesses testified Tuesday that Gray suffered the injury that killed him very late in his wagon ride, between the fifth and final stop on the van's 45-minute ride. The defense was attempting to refute prosecutors' claim that Goodson should have administered medical aid during the wagon's fourth stop, when Gray indicated that he wanted to go to the hospital.
The medical examiner who prepared Gray's autopsy report took the stand last week and defended her finding that Gray's death was a homicide.
But former District of Columbia medical examiner Dr. Jonathan Arden testified for the defense that it should have been classified as an accident.
"There is no evidence this injury was inflicted on him by another person, there's no indication he committed suicide," he said. "He had an impact with the van and it caused injury, not in the course of activities inflicted by one's self or another person."
Arden was accepted as an expert despite his troubled past: He was forced to resign from his post in 2013 after the Inspector General released a scathing report identifying operational deficiencies in the office and accusations of sexual harassment from employees.
Prosecutors say Gray suffered his spinal injury somewhere between the wagon's second and fourth stop, and that he was in dire need of care when Goodson and another officer checked on him.
But Arden testified that he believes Gray was injured at the very end of the ride, after Goodson checked on Gray, and that a seat belt wouldn't have prevented his injuries. By the time Gray arrived at the police station, Arden said, he had fresh secretions around his mouth, wasn't breathing and had no pulse. But at the wagon's fourth and fifth stops, the prisoner was able to respond to officers when they asked if he needed medical help. If he'd been injured at that point, Arden said, Gray wouldn't have been able to speak or support his body weight.
"Mr. Gray did not have his neck injury prior to stop four," he said. "Once he had his neck injury he'd had all the symptoms: paralysis, trouble breathing, possible quadriplegia. At stop four he was able to use his legs, talk, maintain a seated position," he said. "He would have had no core strength to remain seated."
Goodson's failure to call a medic at the fourth stop, Arden said, "in no way caused or contributed to Freddie Gray's death, because he hadn't suffered his injuries yet."
The defense also called a neurosurgeon, Dr. Joel Winer, who testified that Gray's injuries were so severe and occurred so suddenly that he would have been immediately paralyzed, losing bowel and bladder function and his ability to breathe.
Prosecutors have argued that Gray would have still had limited physical function after sustaining his neck injury, such as breathing and supporting his head. Weiner vehemently disagreed.
"It would be impossible for Mr. Gray to have these capabilities having suffered the injury," he said. "He wouldn't be able to maintain a seated position, he'd be floppy, like a dish rag or a jellyfish."
When asked how long someone with such an injury would be able to breathe after being hurt, he replied "seconds."
Testimony will continue Wednesday.