Baltimore is on edge. Again.
26-year-old police officer William Porter’s trial for his role in the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray has been declared a hung jury by the judge presiding.
The verdict has been a long time coming. It caries significant weight given the spate of bloodshed and rioting in Baltimore in the months since Freddie Gray’s death in police custody on April 12, 2015.
It is alleged that Gray died on April 19 from trauma sustained while in police transport for carrying a switchblade. The knife was later found to have been legal. On May 1, prosecutors, after receiving medical examiner reports on Gray’s death, indicted all six officers involved in his transport in Gray’s murder.
It stands to reason that prosecutors chose to go after Porter first because they had the most compelling case against him. He could then be bargained with to testify against the other five officers involved. Were that the case, prosecutors have a tough road ahead of them.
Officer Porter had been dispatched after the driver of the van, Caesar R. Goodson Jr., asked for an officer to check on Gray.
Porter testified last week that he was in the van for most of the 45-minute ride between the site of Gray’s arrest and the Western District police station. Porter said Gray did not appear injured, and that he kicked and yelled for most of the trip. Gray was not seatbelted during the transport, which is contrary to department policy. Porter said that Gray didn’t ask for medical assistance but agreed when Porter asked him if he wanted to go to a hospital.
Porter said he asked about the hospital because he knew the jail would not accept Gray if he claimed to be injured. The driver, Goodson, declined to go to the hospital, instead stopping to pick up another prisoner, Porter said. When the van arrived at the police station, Gray was unresponsive
Porter was charged with involuntary manslaughter, second degree assault, and misconduct in office. He had posted $350,000 bail.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake excoriated the city’s police and officers who “choose to engage in violence, brutality, [and] racism.” She was also seen by many to have lended legitimacy to the riots that would engulf the city when she declared to a CBS affiliate that space would be given “to those who wished to destroy.” The riots destroyed hundreds of business and injured dozens, including dozens of police officers.
In her statements today, the mayor clearly seeks calm and respect for the legitimacy of the trial.
“Twelve Baltimore residents listened to the evidence presented and were unable to render a unanimous decision,” Rawlings-Blake said. “As a unified city, we must respect the outcome of the judicial process. … In the coming days, if some choose to demonstrate peacefully to express their opinion, that is their constitutional right. I urge everyone to remember that collectively, our reaction needs to be one of respect for our neighborhoods, and for the residents and businesses of our city.”
The city has taken steps aimed at keeping the peace no matter what the verdict. The police department canceled leave for all officers this week while Rawlings-Blake opened an emergency operations center and pleaded for calm.
Back in July, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts was fired for the rise in homicides and what was perceived as police inaction. As Calibre Press owner Jim Glennon wrote at the time, Baltimore was on track to return to murder rates seen in the 1990s.
But the killing has only quickened under the new commissioner. There have been 330 people killed in Baltimore this year, the highest murder rate ever for that city per capita.
Officer Porter isn’t out of the clear yet. Prosecutors may try him again on manslaughter, assault, misconduct and reckless endangerment charges.
Meanwhile, police officers from all over Maryland are being staged in and around Baltimore to prepare for the unrest that has, in a sense, never left since the death of Gray.