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Hearing on Freddie Gray trial location to play out amid tensions

$6.4M payout to Freddie Gray's family unanimously approved by Baltimore's spending panel.

As attorneys argue in court Thursday whether to move the Freddie Gray case out of Baltimore, the tensions driving the discussion will be on full display outside, where protesters calling for justice and police plan to gather.

Circuit Judge Barry Williams will consider whether the unrest triggered by Gray's death, the nightly curfew that followed and the intense publicity surrounding the case merit a change in venue for the trials of six police officers charged in Gray's arrest and death.

The hearing also comes one day after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration approved an extraordinary $6.4 million civil settlement with Gray's family.

Legal experts said the settlement could bolster defense arguments to move the trial out of Baltimore, while the city's police union said it means the officers can't get a fair trial in Baltimore.

"My concern is that she has implicated guilt on our six officers," Fraternal Order of Police President Gene Ryan said of Rawlings-Blake. "Where are you going to get a juror in this city that hasn't been tainted by this settlement and the media coverage? Where are you going to get a just, unbiased and fair juror out of this pool?"

Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody in April. His death from those injuries sparked a week of protests against police brutality, and his funeral was followed by a period of rioting, looting and arson in the city. Gov. Larry Hogan called in the National Guard to restore order, and Rawlings-Blake implemented a controversial weeklong citywide curfew.

The six officers involved in his arrest and death face charges ranging from second-degree murder to assault. All have pleaded not guilty.

City officials and police on Wednesday announced preparations for planned protests during the hearing Thursday.

Though the protests were largely peaceful during last week's pretrial motions hearing — with two arrests — interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said that police will be "prepared to act or react to whatever scenarios unfold ahead of us."

Protesters with the People's Power Assembly plan to protest outside the courtroom, demanding that the trials not be moved.

"The police indicted in this case are employed right here in Baltimore; the Baltimore City Police Department is supposed to serve our community, and the trial should remain in Baltimore," Sharon Black, one of the organizers, said in a statement.

Rawlings-Blake said she wanted to assure residents that the city is "prepared for whatever the outcome of the motions hearing is."

Davis said leave for officers has been canceled for Thursday, as it was during the first hearing. He said officers won't be wearing riot gear but added: "We certainly have that capability. We don't want to be provocative; we don't want to draw a line in the sand."

But if a peaceful protest "goes south," he said, the department will be ready. He noted that a small number of people can disrupt a peaceful protest.

And if the crowd moves from the courthouse, he said, police are prepared.

"We have a relationship with the protesters," Davis said. "They know that we are there for the same reasons that they're there. We're responsible for creating an environment where they can safely exercise their First Amendment privileges."

Rawlings-Blake said the civil settlement will help Gray's family, the officers involved and the entire city move forward. While the settlement absolves the officers of civil liability, it is separate from the criminal proceedings.

"We came to the conclusion that this settlement is in the best interest of protecting taxpayers," Rawlings-Blake said. "We can avoid years and years of protracted civil litigation and the potential harm to the community and the divisiveness which might result. We've seen the impact on the city on just one motions hearing."

Rawlings-Blake also said city officials have assured Gray's family that police officers in the Western District — the site of Gray's arrest — will be the first in the city equipped with body cameras. She said she plans to shorten a planned six-month pilot program to two months and start "as soon as possible." The mayor had earlier pledged to start the pilot by the end of the year.

"We've been in a lot of conversations with the Gray family's attorneys, making sure that something like this doesn't happen again," the mayor said.

The city spending board, which the mayor controls, approved the settlement in a 5-0 vote Wednesday. The mayor called it a "fiscal calculation" based on risk, and said the payout won't affect city operations or programs.

According to the nine-page deal, Gray's mother, Gloria Darden, will receive $5.36 million. His father, Freddie Gray Sr., will receive $640,000. The remainder, $400,000, will be paid to the Estate of Freddie Gray Jr. The city agrees to pay the first $1.8 million within 15 days.

City Solicitor George Nilson said city officials negotiated with the Gray family's lawyers for three and a half months, concluding in late August. He said officials had considered delaying the settlement vote but decided against it, reasoning that voting after Thursday's hearing could force the lawyers in the criminal case to revisit the change-of-venue issue.

"The whole discussion would be about this action's impact on venue, rather than focusing on the impact on the publicity back in the spring," Nilson said.

Rawlings-Blake also said Wednesday that Gray's family had notified city officials they intended to file a federal lawsuit, and that became another factor behind the decision to settle before the criminal charges against the officers are resolved.

A federal case, on the grounds that Gray's constitutional rights were violated, would not be subject to the state's cap on damages in such cases, which is generally $400,000.

Attorney William H. "Billy" Murphy said the settlement represents "civil justice," and saves the family and the city from costly litigation that would "keep the controversy" surrounding the case alive for years.

He praised Rawlings-Blake for reaching out to the family "in compassion, to seek healing, resolution and closure" sooner rather than later, because "justice delayed is justice denied."

"Because Mayor Rawlings-Blake had the foresight to take decisive action, we have accomplished [the settlement] without litigation, which is an extraordinary result," Murphy said. "Lengthy litigation and trial puts grieving families through hell, because it forces them to relive their tragedy over and over in ways large and small."

He said Gray's family members "are not advocates for a particular position" in the criminal trials, and only want to see justice served.

Legal analysts believe the venue decision will play a decisive role in determining the outcomes of the trials, especially if they are moved to a more conservative county in Maryland where jurors may be more friendly to law enforcement.

The officers' attorneys want the trials moved, citing "media hype" and claiming that every potential juror in Baltimore was affected by the rioting, looting and citywide curfew.

Prosecutors have said it would be premature to move the trials out of Baltimore before jury selection, when city residents' thoughts on the case can be vetted.

Ryan, of the FOP, said the early settlement bolsters the argument to move the case. He said potential Baltimore jurors could reason that because the city settled the civil case, the mayor must know information that implicates the officers involved. He also said some jurors may be angry that their tax dollars will be used to pay the settlement.

Rawlings-Blake disagreed, saying the settlement only removes civil liability from the officers, so that regardless of the outcome of the criminal trials, they will have "closure" when they conclude.

A trial date in the Gray case is scheduled for Oct. 13, though it could be pushed back. The six officers are set to be tried separately — a decision made by Williams last week.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

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