Baltimore police van driver Caesar Goodson not guilty on all 21 administrative charges in Freddie Gray case

Baltimore Police Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. was found not guilty Tuesday of all 21 administrative charges against him in the 2015 arrest and death of Freddie Gray.

The verdict absolves Goodson once and for all in the case, and allows him to continue his career on the city police force.

Goodson, 48, the driver of the police van in which Gray was found with severe spinal cord injuries in April 2015, was charged with neglecting his duty by failing to ensure Gray’s safety by securing him in a seat belt or calling a medic when he requested one. He was also charged with making false statements to investigators.

Goodson faced possible termination if any of the charges against him had been sustained.

A trial board of three police officers — two from Baltimore and one from Prince George’s County — was unanimous in clearing him of all charges. He was acquitted in a separate criminal trial of charges including second-degree depraved-heart murder.

“This is a vindication of this officer,” said Sean Malone, one of Goodson’s attorneys. “This is a tragic accident that happened, and we’re sorry for the loss of Mr. Gray. But we’re glad that our client is not going to be the face of this incident.”

The decision of the panel is final. It cannot be challenged by the city or the police department.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said the department “will stay the course” with the forthcoming trial boards for two other officers charged administratively in the case.

“Freddie Gray died in police custody. My thoughts and prayers remain with the Gray family,” Davis said in a statement. “We will continue to make improvements within our organization to meet the expectations of constitutional policing demanded by our community.”

The administrative trial of Lt. Brian Rice is scheduled to start Monday. The trial of Sgt. Alicia White is slated for Dec. 5.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said it would be inappropriate to comment on the panel’s decision when two more trials in the case are pending.

An attorney for the Gray family declined to comment. Attorney Hassan Murphy has said the family is fatigued by the many legal proceedings in the case and doesn’t wish to speak to the media about it anymore.

The city reached a $6.4 million civil settlement with Gray’s family.

Goodson also declined to comment. Malone said Goodson intends to “take care of his family” by continuing his 18-year career with the department until retirement.

“Officer Goodson is just ready to get on,” Malone said. “This is three years. He had a murder charge over his head, he’s had this over his head. He’s a quiet man, he’s a hard-working man, he’s just happy to resume his life.”

In delivering the verdict, Prince George’s County Police Maj. Rosa Guixens read out “not guilty” 21 times in a row and then abruptly closed the proceedings.

Goodson sat stoically until the last “not guilty” was read. Then he broke into a smile. He hugged his attorneys.

Outside the hearing room, Caesar Goodson Sr. said “the family is glad it’s over.”

“My son is a good son and a good officer,” he said. “We hope no other officer has to go through that.”

Officer Goodson has maintained his innocence. In statements to investigators aired during the administrative trial, he said he did not believe it was safe for him to climb into the van to secure Gray in a seat belt, and he did not believe Gray was injured or needed medical care when he requested it.

Gray, 25, was arrested on April 12, 2015, in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of West Baltimore, loaded into the van and taken on a ride that included several stops. He was eventually found unconscious and not breathing in the back of the van. He died a week later.

His death inspired protests against police brutality. On the day he was buried, the city erupted in riots, arson and looting.

State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby filed criminal charges against six police officers in Gray’s arrest and death. Goodson, Rice and Officer Edward Nero were acquitted at bench trials, and Mosby dropped all remaining charges against the other three officers.

The U.S. Justice Department investigated Gray’s death, but declined to bring any federal charges against the officers.

Detectives from Montgomery and Howard counties also investigated on behalf of the city and the police department. Five of the six officers were charged administratively for violating police department policies.

Two officers — Nero and Garrett Miller — have accepted minor discipline and are back at work. Under Maryland law, punishments officers receive are kept private.

Goodson, Rice and White have fought the charges. Goodson was the first to face a trial board.

In addition to charges related to Gray’s safety, Goodson was charged with making false statements to the county detectives, and failing to properly document his actions on the day of Gray’s arrest.

After the verdict Tuesday, Malone said Goodson had been “wrongfully charged” from the start. During the trial, he said Goodson had acted in good faith as any reasonable officer would have under the circumstances.

Malone and fellow attorney Thomas Tompsett Jr. argued that the police department had failed to properly train or equip Goodson — or any of its officers — to handle non-compliant detainees, and that Goodson had deferred to his supervisors and other officers who had been more directly involved in loading Gray into the van and deciding not to secure him in a seat belt.

Malone got the lead Montgomery County detective to admit on cross-examination that he failed to follow up with key witnesses or provide evidence favorable to Goodson to the committee that determined the charges in the case, despite a legal requirement to do so.

Neil Duke, who prosecuted the case for the city, argued that Goodson had failed in his duty to keep Gray safe and was trying to pass blame on to the department and the other officers around him that day.

Duke referred questions about the verdict to the city law department. City Solicitor Andre Davis declined to comment.

The police union applauded the panel’s decision. Union President Gene Ryan said Gray’s death was “an extremely unfortunate incident,” but no officers were responsible.

“Officer Goodson can now turn the page on from this chapter in his life and continue his career with the Baltimore Police Department,” Ryan said in a statement.

Goodson’s salary was $77,591 during the fiscal year 2016, city records show. He was suspended without pay when he was charged with felonies in the criminal case. When he was acquitted of the criminal charges, his pay was restored, and he received more than $80,000 in back pay, while remaining on the department’s suspended list.

The trial board decision ends his suspension and puts him back on active duty.

Tuesday’s verdict did not sit well with advocates of police reform. Monique Dixon, deputy director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the decision “appalling, yet predictable” from a panel composed entirely of police officers.

“As long as the city lets law enforcement police themselves in lieu of meaningful civilian oversight, these proceedings will not result in accountability and will fail to strengthen community trust,” Dixon said in a statement. “These hearings are hollow unless they are fundamentally altered to incorporate resident input, transparency, and accountability.”

Lawrence Grandpre of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle said the verdict was “nothing unexpected.”

“We’ve been trying to reform these trial boards for three or four years,” he said. His organization wants to add citizens to the panels.

Grandpre said he is concerned officers on the panels are biased.

“They are thinking: ‘That could be me.’ ”

Dixon and Grandpre said their organizations will continue working to change laws in Maryland and in Baltimore to improve civilian oversight of the police and police misconduct trials. Pugh said she would join them in Annapolis.

In recent years, the city’s trial boards have found more officers guilty than not. In 2016, every officer who went before a trial board was found guilty of at least one charge.

Guixens, who chaired the panel, declined to comment after the verdict, as did another panel member, Baltimore Police Detective Ryan Diener. The third member, Baltimore Police Maj. Steve Hohman, could not be reached.

The panel that presided over Goodson’s trial will not preside over Rice’s or White’s trials.

Malone said the panel’s decision to clear his client should make the city reconsider the remaining cases.

“The department has an obligation to take a look at the remaining charges with these officers and determine if they want to go forward based on the evidence that simply has not been put forth,” he said.

Mosby, who has lamented her inability to convict Goodson criminally, said Tuesday that the outcome in his administrative case was also “disappointing.” But she said Baltimore residents “must not forget the significant progress our city has made towards criminal justice reform and police accountability” since Gray’s death.

Mosby, who is up for reelection next year, mentioned changes in police protocols, the introduction of officer body cameras, and the consent decree between the city and the U.S. Justice Department.

“Our focus must remain on eliminating the division between the public and law enforcement,” Mosby said. “And my office is committed to rebuilding that trust within the criminal justice system."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

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