Next trial boards in Freddie Gray case likely to focus on supervisors' responsibilities, experts say

After a Baltimore police trial board found Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. not guilty of all administrative charges Tuesday in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, legal analysts said the cases against two colleagues will likely zero in on what additional responsibility they had as supervisors.

“That may be their best shot,” said attorney Thomas Maronick, who has followed the cases against the officers but is not directly involved in them. “A supervisor is responsible for what happens on their watch.”

Lt. Brian Rice and Sgt. Alicia White are the last two officers of the six involved in the case who face disciplinary action. Both could lose their jobs if they are found guilty by their trial boards.

Rice is scheduled to go before his board on Monday. White is to follow on Dec. 5.

Gray, 25, was arrested in April 2015 and suffered severe spinal cord injuries in the back of a police van. He died a week after his arrest.

Goodson, the driver of the van, was charged administratively with neglecting his duty to ensure Gray’s safety by securing him with a seat belt or calling a medic when Gray asked for one, with making false statements to investigators and failing to properly document his actions.

In clearing him, the panel of three police officers determined the city failed to prove the charges against him by a preponderance of evidence — a lesser burden than the standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt required in criminal court. Goodson was acquitted in criminal court last year of charges including second-degree depraved-heart murder.

Warren Alperstein, a defense attorney not involved in the case, said it was “astonishing” that the city’s legal team couldn’t meet that lower burden of proof at the administrative trial.

“It’s much easier to prove a police officer committed wrongdoing in a trial board setting,” he said. “By and large most observers believed that at minimum some of these charges would have been sustained.”

But another key difference between a trial board and a criminal trial is that officers are judged by their colleagues rather than an independent jury or criminal court judge. University of Maryland law professor Doug Colbert said the officers who make up a hearing panel are likely to be reluctant to punish a fellow officer.

“That’s what’s expected when police officers are judging one another,” he said. “Many people will find it difficult to accept a decision that’s made by three fellow officers. It doesn’t give the appearance of impartiality.”

In 2016, all officers who appeared before a trial board were found guilty of at least one charge.

Much about the trial boards — including the charges against the defendants — is withheld from the public in advance of the proceedings. But lawyers who have followed the Gray cases expect that Rice and White’s role as supervisors will play a key role.

Alperstein said that could lead to a different result than in Goodson’s case.

“I think that’s a difference, a big difference,” he said. “It’s a different theory prosecution.”

At Rice’s criminal trial last year, prosecutors highlighted his role as the highest-ranking officer at Gray’s arrest. He was charged with manslaughter and other violations.

“He was in charge,” Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow said, and should have ensured that Gray was secured with a seat belt.

Chaz Ball, one of Rice’s defense attorneys at his criminal trial, countered that the lieutenant assessed the scene when Gray was loaded into Goodson’s van and determined it was too dangerous to secure him with a seat belt. When Rice saw Gray a short time later, Ball said, Gray was belligerent and showed no signs of being hurt.

Rice was acquitted by a judge of all criminal charges.

One challenge to prosecuting Rice and White in their administrative trials, Maronick said, is that they were not in direct contact with Goodson when he was transporting Gray. That could make it difficult for the city’s lawyers to show when they could have stepped in and kept Gray safe.

“It isn’t obvious when they could intervene,” he said.

Colbert said the officers on a trial board are more likely to blame the culture of the police department than any individual.

“The only way to change a culture is to hold individuals accountable,” he said. “It’s another sad day in Baltimore for people who hope the legal process will provide accountability.”

It’s an issue that has dogged the cases from the beginning: It has been difficult for prosecutors to pin responsibility for Gray’s death on any individual officer.

David Jaros, a professor of criminal law at the University of Baltimore, said the decision to clear Goodson shouldn’t be understood as a vindication of how police operate in the city.

“The defense’s chief argument was there were systematic failures,” he said.

Maronick said he wasn’t sure the city’s lawyers will be able to prevail in the remaining trial boards, given the past failures in both the administrative and criminal proceedings.

“The city has lost on these cases for so long, they haven't been able to get any to go their way,” Maronick said. “I don't think the results will be any different.”

Mike Davey, Rice’s attorney, said he was not surprised by the verdict in Goodson’s case, and expects a similar one at his client’s trial.

“We believe that the evidence will show that Lt. Rice acted within the policies of the Baltimore Police Department that were in place at the time,” he said.

Tony Garcia, White’s attorney, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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