Officers plead not guilty in Freddie Gray case as judge and trial date selected

A trial date has been set for the six officers charged in connection with Freddie Gray's death.

Judge Barry G. Williams, a former city prosecutor and civil rights litigator with a no-nonsense reputation, will preside over the high-profile criminal cases against six Baltimore police officers indicted in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray.

Williams' appointment Monday came as each of the officers asked for a jury trial and entered not-guilty pleas in writing — a legal maneuver that allows them to avoid appearing at court arraignments that had been scheduled for next week.

"We look forward to trying this case before Judge Williams," Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said in a statement. "The defendants have all entered not guilty pleas, which is their right. All defendants in this case are presumed innocent, until, or unless they are found guilty."

Defense attorneys for the officers either declined to comment or could not be reached.

Administrative Judge W. Michel Pierson set a trial date of Oct. 13, with motions hearings scheduled for Sept. 2. Pierson also assigned Williams to the case and allowed for written pleadings, which are rarely entered in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Williams could not comment, as judges in Maryland "cannot talk about their pending cases nor their deliberative process," said Terri Charles, a Maryland Judiciary spokeswoman.

Williams, 53, has been an associate judge in Baltimore Circuit Court since 2005, according to his official biography. He led the court's criminal division from 2012 until January and chaired the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council for Baltimore from 2012 until 2014.

Warren Alperstein, an attorney who represents the city's bar association on the council, praised Williams' selection for a case that he said could turn into a spectacle under a less commanding judge.

"He is a no-nonsense, fair and practical judge who will no doubt control that courtroom," Alperstein said. Williams is "neither state- nor defense-oriented" by reputation, he said.

"The reality of it is there are certain judges that the state would prefer and there are certain judges that the defense would prefer," but Williams is neither, Alperstein said. "He will not be persuaded by media. He will not be influenced by public sentiment. He will rule as the law will require him to do. Period. There will be no outside influences."

Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody in April. His death a week after his arrest sparked protests over police brutality and unrest in the city — including looting and rioting — that drew international attention to the case.

Mosby filed charges against six officers involved in Gray's arrest and death, and all six were subsequently indicted by a Baltimore grand jury.

Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr. is charged with second-degree depraved-heart murder. Sgt. Alicia D. White, Lt. Brian W. Rice and Officer William G. Porter are charged with manslaughter. Officers Edward M. Nero and Garrett E. Miller face lesser charges, including second-degree assault.

A. Dwight Pettit, a longtime Baltimore defense attorney, said Williams is an "excellent judge" to take the closely watched case.

"He's very stern, very knowledgeable of the law," Pettit said.

In a murder trial a few years ago in which Pettit argued before Williams, he said the judge "let both sides try their case. He was pragmatic and reasonable in his ruling, and adhering to the law."

Williams has presided over previous cases that have garnered attention.

In November, Williams threatened to hold a Baltimore detective in contempt of court for refusing to reveal the technology police officers used to track a defendant's cellphone. Tracking devices have raised the ire of privacy advocates nationwide.

When Detective John L. Haley cited a "nondisclosure agreement" with the FBI, Williams said, "You don't have a nondisclosure agreement with the court." Prosecutors withdrew the evidence.

In December 2013, Williams sentenced Johnny Johnson to 11 years in prison for vehicular manslaughter and possession of heroin in another high-profile incident in the city. Johnson admitted to being high on drugs when he sped off Interstate 83 and stuck and killed Matthew Hersl in front of City Hall. Prosecutors had asked for a 14-year sentence.

In July 2011, Williams sentenced Sian James to 10 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter for hurling a chunk of concrete that killed off-duty Baltimore police Detective Brian Stevenson during a heated argument over a parking space — an act James' attorney said was in self-defense

In that case, Williams said the court was "beside itself" over the "senselessness of it all."

"We have a life that was lost," Williams said at the time. "This did not have to happen."

Before becoming a Circuit Court judge, Williams served as a trial attorney in the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department from 1997 to 2002, and as special litigation counsel for the division from 2002 to 2005.

He also worked as an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore from 1989 to 1997.

Williams served as a law clerk to Judge Arrie W. Davis in Baltimore City Circuit Court from 1987 to 1988 and for Judge Robert M. Bell, who was then sitting on the state's Court of Special Appeals, from 1988 to 1989.

He received his law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1987 after graduating with a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Virginia. He was born in Neptune, N.J.

Pierson ordered that Williams will oversee "all further proceedings" in the case.

It is customary that defendants appear in Baltimore courts for arraignment, though attorneys say such written pleas are common in surrounding jurisdictions.

"You can do that in Baltimore County and several other counties in Maryland, but it's always been a rule of court that you have to appear" for an arraignment in the city, Pettit said.

He said he and other defense attorneys would appreciate being able to file pleas in writing as well, but that he understands the Gray case has been handled differently because of its high profile.

"It's an unusual case, so the unusual happening is not a surprise," he said.

Alperstein said allowing more written pleas would help Baltimore thin its docket load and save the hassle of bringing defendants from jail to the court. He said such a change has been under consideration in the city for some time.

Allowing written pleas in the Gray case shows "Pierson being the practical-minded judge that he is," Alperstein said. And as the case unfolds, he said, Baltimore will see Williams' sensible side as well.

"He's a good choice," Alperstein said.

krector@baltsun.com

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