What did I say? Officer Porter jury found itself in a briar patch

What did I say? Porter jury landed in a briar patch of legal issues

What did I say? I said the jurors in Officer William Porter's case in Freddie Gray's death had a briar patch of issues to get through in their deliberations, and, upon hearing that, a couple of attorneys said: “Sounds like reasonable doubt.”

Yes, but apparently not enough for an acquittal.

So the outcome is as I predicted: A hung jury, home for Christmas.

I hedged with a side bet — that, if deadlocked, the Porter jury might vote to convict the young Baltimore police officer of misconduct in office.

That it didn’t happen probably means the members of the Porter jury got hung up on a particularly sharp thorn — that is, something at least one juror found non-negotiable. That’s the expert speculation of Amy Dillard, who has been a criminal defense attorney and who teaches at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Here’s a possibility for one such thorn: “Reasonable conduct.”

It’s as if 12 Baltimore citizens were being asked to set a community standard for reasonable conduct for police officers with a person in custody and, more specifically, a person in custody who experiences some sort of medical distress.

In his instructions the other day, Judge Barry Williams told the jurors that, to find the officer guilty of involuntary manslaughter, they must agree that, with regard to the late Freddie Gray, Porter acted in a “grossly negligent manner” and with a “reckless or wanton disregard for human life.”

And, Williams said, the jury would have to find that Porter’s conduct had been a “gross departure” from what a “reasonable police officer” would have done in the same situation.

That’s complicated stuff, Dillard says, where good people can honestly — and deeply — disagree.

The state portrayed Porter as careless and callous, while defense attorneys tried to show that the junior officer cared about Gray's well-being but didn’t understand the extent of his injuries. Plus, the defense pointed out, Porter was not primarily responsible for Gray’s safe transport; the van driver was.

So here’s what the jury might have been wrestling with:

Was not seat-belting Gray on the bench of the police van reasonable or not reasonable, given that apparently few detainees were ever belted in place by arresting officers senior to Porter?

Once Gray appeared to be in distress and asked for help, did Porter do enough in response? Were his actions reasonable or not reasonable?

“A reasonable police officer would do something” to help Gray, Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow argued. Porter, he said, “did nothing when he could have saved a man's life.”

Gary Proctor, one of the defense attorneys, claimed Porter never deviated “from what a reasonable officer would do.” Proctor and attorney Joe Murtha brought witnesses, police officers and commanders, who testified that Porter’s actions were reasonable.

So, that’s where the jury could have been hung.

The Porter case took them into a briar patch, what University of Maryland law professor David Gray (no relation to Freddie Gray) calls “the margins of the criminal law.”

The charge that Porter’s lack of action rose to criminal neglect — that he failed to do what a reasonable police officer would have done in the same situation — took the jury to “the outer boundary of what we’re willing to punish as a crime,” Gray says.

The jury’s deadlock shows just how hard it is to get 12 people to agree on anything, much less what is reasonable and what is not.

“Reasonable people can disagree on what’s reasonable,” Gray says.

And while jurors might use common sense to reach a conclusion about a defendant’s actions, there’s no guarantee of consensus in that, either.

“There’s nothing common about common sense,” Gray says. “Everyone has a personal world view. It’s what each juror brings into the room.”

 

 

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