Judge in officer's trial: Is failure to seat belt a crime?

AP News
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Posted: Jul 14, 2016 4:13 PM

BALTIMORE (AP) — The trial for the highest-ranking officer charged in the death of a 25-year-old black man who was fatally injured in the back of a police van may hinge on a simple question: Should the officer have put a seat belt on Freddie Gray?

Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams, who will decide the case of Lt. Brian Rice, focused on that question during closing arguments Thursday, asking prosecutors if they believed it was a crime not to put a seat belt on Gray.

"So, failure to restrain equals criminal act?" the judge asked.

Michael Schatzow, chief deputy state's attorney, replied that it was, because to leave Gray face down on the floor of the van in handcuffs and leg shackles amounted to Rice not taking reasonable action to ensure his safety.

"He should have restrained him," Schatzow said.

Prosecutors said Rice, who is white, was most responsible of the six officers charged for following police procedures to fasten a prisoner in a seat belt, citing his 18 years of experience on the force.

Rice is charged with manslaughter, reckless endangerment and misconduct. Gray died April 19, 2015, a week after he suffered a spinal injury sometime during the van ride. His death prompted riots last year in Baltimore.

Rice is the fourth officer to be tried. Two officers have been acquitted and a trial for the third ended in a hung jury.

The judge said he will announce his verdict Monday morning.

In arguing the government's case, prosecutors cited a 2015 email sent by the police commissioner instructing officers to use seat belts when transporting prisoners.

"Clearly Mr. Rice was on notice that he was to seat belt a prisoner," said prosecutor Janice Bledsoe.

Michael Belsky, Rice's attorney, officers could use discretion, if they believe their safety is at risk. He said officers had concerns, because Gray was not cooperative and they weren't sure what onlookers would do if extra time was taken to fasten Gray in the van.

"What he did was professional," Belsky said, adding that "this was not a scene where people are happy or cooperative."

Prosecutors and defense attorneys gave different characterizations of the onlookers. Prosecutors described them as concerned observers, while Belsky said officers heard threatening comments during the arrest.

Bledsoe told the judge that Rice didn't not make decisions based on danger, but because he had the power "to punish and humiliate Freddie Gray." She showed the judge video of the arrest that included Rice yelling to onlookers who were watching and recording the arrest: "Jail! Jail! Jail!" She told the judge a reasonable police officer wouldn't threaten citizens with jail while they watched the events unfold.

Belsky described the scene as a rapidly evolving situation in a high-crime neighborhood. He said one officer had conveyed to others at the scene that a nearby public-housing complex was starting to empty out. Belsky also said Gray was rocking the van violently after being put inside.

"They were combative, as was Mr. Gray," Belsky told the judge.

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This story has been corrected the date of the memo sent to 2015, not 2014.