Jury selection offers preview of Freddie Gray prosecutions

Jury selection in Baltimore protest case offers preview of Freddie Gray prosecutions

Fifty prospective jurors sat in a stately Baltimore courtroom for the trial of a young black man arrested during the April protests when Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock posed a question:

Does anyone "have strong feelings regarding the protest and the ensuing response following the death of Freddie Gray?"

Four stood up. But then, someone asked Murdock to repeat the question.

Twenty-one stood up.

The scene playing out in downtown's Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse Wednesday could provide a glimpse of the challenges ahead for prosecutors, defense attorneys and a judge in seating an impartial jury in the high-profile trials of six Baltimore police officers charged in Gray's arrest and death. The first trial — of Officer William Porter — is scheduled for Nov. 30.

Attorneys for the officers have twice filed motions to move the trials out of Baltimore, arguing that the intense media coverage of the case, along with fear of future city unrest, would make it impossible to seat an impartial jury. Twice, Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams denied their requests, ruling that the jury selection process "is still the appropriate method to determine whether the jury could render a fair and impartial verdict."

Douglas Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor who has attended some of the hearings in the police officers' cases, said "there is no more important stage of a trial than jury selection."

"The entire justice system aims for selecting people who can eliminate potential prejudice or bias, and to judge the outcome based solely on evidence," he said. "We want a diverse and representative cross section of the community, and that takes into account many factors. We want a jury that is diverse and does not appear homogeneous."

Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal injury while in police custody on April 12. His death a week later sparked protests against alleged police brutality, and his funeral was followed by rioting, looting and arson that drew national and international attention to the city.

The man facing trial this week, 22-year-old Alkebulan Marcus of Philadelphia, was arrested during downtown protests on April 25. He was one of 35 people arrested that day, and among hundreds arrested in the weeks following Gray's arrest. Marcus was charged with disorderly conduct, failure to obey a reasonable and lawful order, and resisting or interfering with an arrest.

Murdock first asked the prospective jurors if they knew anything about Marcus' case. One man stood up and said he did.

"It happened during the uprising. I saw it on TV," said the man, referring to the peaceful protests that turned violent, with people breaking windows of police cars and hurling parts of metal fences at police stationed around Camden Yards just as an Orioles game was to begin.

But when Murdock asked him whether watching the coverage would affect his ability to serve on the jury, he answered no.

The judge then asked the group whether they had strong feelings about the protest and the ensuing response following Gray's death.

"I thought everyone should have stood up," in response to the judge's earlier question, said Loretta Caldwell, 69, who was among the 21 who did.

She was later dismissed from the panel.

Caldwell believes everyone in Baltimore has an opinion about the Gray case and the unrest. She's concerned jurors will not listen to the facts of the case and will simply render guilty verdicts against the six officers.

"I hope they get a fair trial," Caldwell said after leaving the courtroom.

Murdock asked the group of prospective jurors if they would give more or less weight to a police officer's testimony. Ten people stood. Half of them said they would give more weight to testimony of an officer, the other half said they would give less.

After being dismissed, Nate Walker, 29, said he has had past encounters with police, which is why he believes he wasn't chosen for the jury.

"Personally, I don't trust" police, said Walker, a customer service tech for a credit card company. "I've been threatened by them. I'm not saying they are all bad."

Walker said he hasn't followed the Gray case closely, but many people close to him have.

Fourteen prospective jurors stood up when Murdock asked if anyone had strong feelings about people who came to Baltimore from out of state to participate in the protests. She also asked whether any of them had ties — including relatives — to law enforcement agencies. One woman said she previously worked for state police, and two said they had family who worked for the Baltimore Police Department.

The judge also asked potential jurors to stand if they felt they couldn't be on the jury because of biases about the defendant's race or gender, and whether any of them had family members with past or pending criminal charges.

Twelve people stood, but did not specify their concerns until they were called individually to the bench.

For more than two hours, prospective jurors were called one at a time to discuss why they stood up for certain questions, with some being called to the bench multiple times.

J. Wyndal Gordon, Marcus' attorney, agreed that attorneys for the six officers will likely ask similar questions during jury selection in their cases.

"They're absolutely going to ask the jurors about their feelings about what they heard, read or have seen of the protests," Gordon said.

Gordon said that the city's recent $6.4 million settlement with the Gray family has alleviated some of the pressure on prospective jurors in the officers' trials. No matter the verdict, he feels that there is a sense of justice from the settlement.

The months between Gray's death and the officers' trials will also help, giving prospective jurors a chance to "recalibrate" and listen to new evidence presented in the cases, he said.

University of Baltimore professor Byron Warnken said that hundreds of prospective jurors would be needed in the officers' cases. He expects them to be asked a number of questions, including what their reaction was when Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced the charges.

He said the process to seat a jury for the officers' cases would last more than a day and less than a week.

The proceedings in the Marcus case this week provided other glimpses of what might be in store when the officers' trials begin.

Marcus' supporters protested outside the courthouse in the morning, waving signs, including one that said "Protesting is not a crime." They also packed the hallway and the courtroom, with some arguing with sheriff's deputies after being told to move to one side of the hallway to allow prisoners involved in unrelated hearings to pass.

By the end of the day, the two sides had agreed upon a panel of 12 jurors: five black women, two black men, four white women and one white man.

"We got 12 unbiased jurors," Gordon said. "So we were able to do it."

But the process wasn't finished. The sides are scheduled to return to court Friday morning because there weren't enough prospective jurors left to pick the required three alternates for Marcus' trial.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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