At Goodson trial, medical examiner defends homicide ruling in Freddie Gray autopsy

Medical examiner defends homicide ruling in Freddie Gray autopsy

The doctor who performed Freddie Gray's autopsy defended in court Friday her conclusion that his death was "no accident" but a homicide — a finding that helped lead to criminal charges against six Baltimore police officers since Gray's death last year.

Dr. Carol Allan, an assistant medical examiner, took the stand on the second day of the trial of Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., the driver of the transport van in which Gray was injured. Goodson, 46, faces the most serious charge in the case: second-degree depraved-heart murder.

Allan testified that Gray's fatal neck injuries, resembling those suffered in a diving accident, were caused by abrupt force to his neck during his transport, when he could not see outside the van to predict sudden stops, starts or turns.

Under cross-examination, Allan acknowledged that there is no direct evidence of what occurred during the ride. But she said her medical findings — including signs of injury to Gray's head and other circumstantial evidence, including statements from witnesses — had given her a solid, scientific foundation for her conclusions.

"I had an open mind on the day of the autopsy," she said. After reading medical records and going over a timeline of events, "I said, 'This is not an accident,' to myself."

"The word 'accident' never crossed my lips to anyone, other than to say, 'This is not an accident,'" Allan said later, under repeated questioning from the defense.

Prosecutors allege that Goodson gave Gray a "rough ride" while Gray was shackled and handcuffed, but unrestrained by a seat belt in the back of the van. A "rough ride" refers to an intentionally turbulent transport of a detainee by police to cause a person harm.

In addition to the murder charge, Goodson is facing three counts of manslaughter, second-degree assault and other charges.

Gray, 25, died April 19, 2015, a week after his arrest. His death sparked widespread protests against police brutality, and his funeral was followed by rioting, looting and arson. Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby filed criminal charges against the six officers on May 1, 2015. All have pleaded not guilty.

Allan has testified in all three of the trials held to date. Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams acquitted Officer Edward Nero on all charges last month. Williams declared a mistrial in the case of Officer William Porter in December after a jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on any of the four charges against him. Porter will be retried this year.

Allan's testimony has been challenged at each trial, but never as forcefully as it was Friday.

In opening statements, the defense asserted that it would show that Allan had originally described Gray's injuries to a police detective as the result of a "freakish accident," and that she changed her mind after collaborating with prosecutors under pressure. But Allan testified Friday that she quickly determined that Gray's death was a homicide.

She said prosecutors never pressed her to rush completion of the autopsy report. When Goodson's attorney, Amy Askew, asked whether Allan had ever considered Gray's death a "tragic accident," she responded forcefully that, after performing the autopsy, she said to herself, "This is not an accident," and maintained that stance.

The basis for Allan's autopsy report also had been challenged in pretrial motions, with Goodson's defense successfully arguing for the exclusion of a key statement used by Allan in determining that Gray's death was a homicide.

The statement, allegedly made by Porter to Detective Syreeta Teel, a police investigator, in an unrecorded phone conversation three days after Gray's arrest, was that Gray had said "I can't breathe" at the van's fourth stop, where Gray, Porter and Goodson were alone. Porter, at his trial in December, denied having made that statement.

During Porter's trial, Allan cited Goodson's and Porter's failure to take Gray to the hospital or call a medic at that stop as part of the foundation for her ruling, which is based on the theory that Gray was injured between the second and fourth stops of the van.

According to her autopsy report, which was obtained exclusively by The Baltimore Sun last year, Allan's understanding of what the officers knew at the fourth stop to inform their decision about whether Gray was injured included Porter's alleged statement to Teel.

The defense has argued that Gray was injured later in the transport, after the fourth stop where Goodson and Porter checked on him. The van made five stops before arriving at the Western District police station, where Gray was found unresponsive.

The impact of the statement's exclusion in Goodson's case is unclear. After the redacted autopsy report was submitted as evidence Friday, Deputy State's Attorney Janice Bledsoe tried to cast aside any implications by asking Allan a question.

"Based on that report, is your opinion still the same?" she asked.

"Yes," Allan said.

Under cross-examination, Askew questioned whether Allan had all the information she needed to make a clear determination of Gray's manner of death, including all available medical records. Askew noted that by the time Gray's body arrived for autopsy, extensive surgical work had been performed on his neck at Maryland Shock Trauma Center. That meant Allan was not able to analyze Gray's neck as it existed at the time of injury, though Allan noted that she did have images of Gray's spine from one hour after his arrival at Shock Trauma.

Askew asked Allan if there was any evidence that Gray had an acute or chronic "reactive airway disease," such as asthma. Allan said there was not, but later testified that evidence of "exercise-induced asthma" would not show up in an autopsy report. Gray ran from police before being arrested, and the officers involved in his arrest have said that they searched him in part because he had asked for his inhaler.

Allan's testimony dominated much of the day. In the afternoon, three other witnesses were called: Officer Lloyd Sobboh, who participated in a videotaped police demonstration of handcuffed individuals and their ability to move around in the back of police vans; Brandon Ross, Gray's friend, who was with him that morning and shot video of his arrest; and Jamel Baker, another friend and witness to Gray's arrest.

Ross and Baker said Goodson was at the back of the van at its second stop, when its doors were being closed on Gray as he lay prone and not secured by a seat belt on the floor.

Douglas Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor who has been following the case, said the testimony of Baker and Ross — during which prosecutors played video of a screaming Gray being arrested — "brought Freddie Gray into the courtroom and helped the prosecution establish, more firmly than ever before, that Goodson was clearly aware of Gray's unrestrained position before driving off."

"We saw Mr. Gray, heard him, saw him placed in the van and, most importantly, saw Officer Goodson outside the van closing the door without any apparent reason not to seat-belt him," Colbert said. "We saw a helpless and cooperative Freddie Gray, not the violent or thrashing individual that the defense indicated.

"The remaining question for [Williams] would be, why wouldn't Officer Goodson make sure that Freddie Gray was safe?" Colbert said.

Williams is hearing all of the cases against the officers. The Goodson trial resumes at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

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