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Donta Allen, man in the van with Freddie Gray, back in the spotlight as driver's trial begins

Officer Goodson, Freddie Gray, and Donta Allen: the only other man in the van is back in the spotlight

During the crucial last leg of Freddie Gray's ultimately fatal transport in the back of a Baltimore police van last year, there were only two other people present: the driver, Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., and Donta Allen, an arrestee placed on the other side of a thin metal divider from Gray.

Given his unparalleled proximity, Allen since has been a figure of considerable intrigue in the criminal cases brought against Goodson and five other Baltimore officers in relation to Gray's transport and death. That's in large part due to contrasting statements he has made — one to police in which he said he believed Gray was "trying to knock himself out" in the back of the van, and others to the media recanting that statement.

On Thursday, Goodson's trial began with an extended discussion on a motion by the defense, unsealed Wednesday, requesting that the entire case be dismissed because prosecutors had failed to disclose another, extended proffer session they had with Allen a year ago, not long after the charges against the officers were brought.

Andrew Graham, Goodson's attorney, said Allen repeated his initial statement to police at that meeting, and that the evidence was therefore exculpatory and required to be handed over by prosecutors. Short of a dismissal of the case, Graham asked that Allen's statement to police be allowed into evidence regardless of whether he takes the stand. He said such an allowance was warranted in part because prosecutors had already been reprimanded for not disclosing evidence in the case twice before.

Judge Barry G. Williams denied the motion and rejected the request to allow Allen's statement into evidence. But he also excoriated Chief Deputy Michael Schatzow and other prosecutors for failing to disclose the information, giving Schatzow until Monday to produce any and all exculpatory evidence that has not already been handed over in Goodson and the other officers' cases.

He repeatedly slammed Schatzow, Baltimore's second highest ranking prosecutor, for insinuating that Allen's statements during the proffer session were not exculpatory. "I'm not saying you did anything nefariously, I'm saying you don't know what exculpatory means," Williams said.

Schatzow argued that Allen provided nothing at their meeting in May 2015 that required disclosure to the defense, and described Allen's comments there as entirely unreliable and contradictory — so much so, in fact, that they don't intend to call him as a witness.

Schatzow also said Thursday that the state believes Allen was coached on what to say in his initial statement to police by another police officer, Officer Zachary Novak, who the state granted immunity in order to testify before the grand jury — where he denied the coaching accusation.

Williams noted that prosecutors had previously tried to discredit Allen's statement to police by saying he had been high on heroin and Xanax when he gave it. In part because of that, Williams said, the subsequent proffer session with Gray was "classic exculpatory evidence" in that, during that session, Allen repeated the thrust of his statement to police in a different environment where he is not alleged to have been high or under the pressure of police.

"My concern becomes what else is out there," Williams said to Schatzow. "If your office doesn't get that, I don't know where we are at this point."

Williams did not assess any sanctions against the prosecutors, but left the door open to do so in future rulings in the case.

Later in the day, during Graham's opening statement in the trial, he said the defense will call Allen to the stand.

The issue over the undisclosed proffer session first became public on Wednesday, when Williams unsealed documents related to the defense's motion.

Goodson is charged with second-degree depraved heart murder, which carries a potential 30-year prison sentence, three counts of manslaughter and other charges. Earlier this week, Goodson elected a bench trial, in which Williams will be the sole decider of his legal fate.

Attached to the documents released Wednesdaywas a transcript of Allen's taped statement to police the day of the incident. In it, Allen told police that it sounded like Gray "was banging his head against the metal, like he was trying to knock himself out or something."

Allen said he thought there was "a dope fiend" on the other side of the divider purposefully banging his head, four or five times. "It was like — he wasn't doing it hard and [expletive], but he was definitely banging himself in the head. I know he was."

Allen also said that it was a "smooth ride."

In another document, prosecutors say that Allen told them that police found drugs on him, though he would later be released without charges.

From the start, Allen's potential testimony has been viewed as problematic.

On April 12, 2015, Allen, now 23, was arrested on a minor offense near North and Pennsylvania avenues shortly after and not far from where Gray was arrested.

After he was arrested, police requested a transport van to pick him up. That radio call went out just as Gray was being checked by Goodson and Officer William Porter at another location. Porter has said Gray was asking for a medic at the time, but that he did not believe Gray was in serious distress. Goodson has never provided a statement to police.

Receiving the call, Goodson drove the van to the location of Allen's arrest, and Allen was placed in the back of the van on the other side of a metal divider from Gray.

Goodson then drove the van to the Western District police station, where Gray was pulled out unconscious and not breathing. Gray died a week later from a severe spinal cord injury that prosecutors say he suffered in the van.

Defense witnesses in Porter's trial contended that Gray was likely injured during the last leg of the trip, when Allen was also in the vehicle. That theory limits the amount of time that Gray was both in police custody and in serious distress.

Witnesses for the prosecution, meanwhile, have alleged that Gray was injured sometime between the van's second and fourth stops, well before Allen was placed in the van, and that he would have been too injured to move much in the back of the van when Allen was also in it.

Allen's statement to police on the day of the arrest has not played a central role in the court proceedings against the officers to date. That's likely in part because in the days following, Allen recanted and denied that statement in media interviews.

On May 1, 2015, the day Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced charges against Goodson and the five other officers, Allen was back at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania avenues, where he had been arrested, celebrating the charges and again distancing himself from his statement to police.

"I'm so happy we got justice for Freddie," Allen said that day, adamantly arguing that he had heard "very little banging for like four seconds" in the van and nothing else.

"I know that man for a fact did not hurt himself," Allen said.

After that day, Allen quickly found himself in legal trouble again.

Prosecutors in York County, Pa., filed charges against him in October for forging a check in July 2015.

Before Porter's December trial, which ended in a hung jury and mistrial, Baltimore prosecutors filed a motion to secure Allen's transport from the York County Prison to serve as a potential witness. Allen was transported, but was never called to the stand.

On Dec. 23, back in York County, Allen pleaded guilty to forgery under a negotiated deal with prosecutors there. He was sentenced to a prison term between his time served, which was 111 days, and 23 months, said Kyle King, an administrator in the York County District Attorney's office.

On May 2, however, Allen was again transported to Baltimore for a court hearing in which prosecutors said he had violated the terms of his probation in the armed robbery case. At that hearing, Allen was found guilty of violating his probation and sentenced to 10 years in prison, court records show.

Gerard Shields, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said Allen since has been incarcerated at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.

krector@baltsun.com

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