A Baltimore judge acquitted the police officer facing the most serious charges in the death of Freddie Gray on Thursday, delivering a broad rebuke of a case that he said lacked evidence.
Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., 46, drove the transport van in which Gray sustained fatal injuries. He is the second officer cleared in the high-profile case. Four other officers could still face trial.
After an eight-day bench trial, Circuit Judge Barry Williams found Goodson not guilty on charges that included second-degree depraved-heart murder and three counts of manslaughter.
The acquittal cast doubt on the remaining criminal cases in which the other officers face similar but lesser charges. Legal observers said Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who drew widespread praise and also condemnation after charging the officers in May 2015, must now re-evaluate the remaining cases.
Prosecutors alleged Goodson deliberately threw the shackled but unrestrained Gray around the back of the van by giving him a "rough ride." Williams said the state lacked evidence and was asking him to make assumptions.
"As the trier of fact, the court can't simply let things speak for themselves," Williams said.
After the verdict, Goodson's attorneys patted him on the back, and a group of about 10 family members, including Goodson's father, hugged and wiped away tears. One man grabbed and kissed the top of Goodson's head and then raised his palms to the ceiling.
Goodson embraced supporters, including Officer Edward Nero, who was acquitted last month, and Officer Garrett Miller, whose trial is pending. Goodson's attorneys said a gag order prohibits him and his family from talking publicly until all six cases have concluded. The gag order also bars prosecutors from discussing the case.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Goodson will remain suspended by the Police Department and now faces an administrative review. In Maryland, the results of such cases are not revealed to the public. With Goodson's acquittal, however, his pay will immediately be restored, and he may apply for more than a year of back pay. His annual salary in 2015 was $72,540.
The verdict drew mixed reaction. Outside the downtown courthouse, where dozens of protesters had gathered, many expressed frustration. Meanwhile, supporters of the officers called for the remaining charges in the case to be dropped.
Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore NAACP, said she was disappointed in the verdict and that many thought the Goodson case presented the best chance for prosecutors to secure a conviction against one of the officers. She said the outcome exposed flaws in the justice system.
"We have to go back to the drawing board here in Baltimore and Maryland with rules and regulations and laws that affect the police behavior," she said, "because it's clear that they can do action that we feel is not correct, but in the courtroom … is not a criminal act."
The city police union called on Mosby to "reconsider her malicious prosecution" of the officers and said she was wasting taxpayer money.
"It is time to put this sad chapter behind us and move forward in a positive manner," FOP President Gene Ryan said. "We must all come together to make Baltimore a safe place to work and raise a family."
Gray's family was "enormously frustrated," attorney William "Billy" Murphy said at an evening news conference with Gray's mother and stepfather. They continue to support Mosby, he said, calling her "one of the most courageous prosecutors" in the country who is "fighting for a just cause."
The family, which received a $6.4 million civil settlement from the city, is "still waiting for justice, whatever that is," Murphy said.
Gray, 25, died on April 19, 2015, one week after his arrest. His death touched off citywide protests against police brutality, and his funeral was followed by rioting, looting and arson. The six officers involved in Gray's arrest and transport were criminally charged within days.
During the trial, prosecutors alleged Goodson didn't secure Gray in a seat belt and had five chances to render aid to Gray after his neck was broken in the back of the van; they said his failure to give aid demonstrated a "depraved heart."
They also said Goodson caused the injuries, driving the van in a reckless manner that tossed Gray around the back of the van's steel cage. As a certified field training officer, prosecutors said, Goodson knew Police Department rules regarding transport safety better than most officers but disregarded them.
The defense sought to raise questions about the timeline of Gray's injuries, saying he was hurt late in the van's journey, minimizing the opportunities Goodson had to intervene. Both sides called medical experts, who presented conflicting testimony.
Williams, a former city prosecutor who investigated police misconduct for the U.S. Justice Department, said there were five "equally plausible scenarios" for when Gray was injured. He quoted the state medical examiner who performed Gray's autopsy, who said, "We don't have any evidence one way or the other."
Williams repeatedly cited the testimony of the prosecution's medical witnesses — who said that Gray's injuries would have been progressive, and that he could have talked, moved his head and held himself up at various points along his transport — to suggest that it would have been difficult for Goodson to tell if Gray was injured.
"This injury manifested itself internally," Williams said. "That is one of the key issues here. If the doctors are not clear as to what would be happening at this point in time, how would the average person or officer without medical training know?"
Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow laid out his "rough ride" theory in his opening statement.
Prosecutors identified an unexplained stop of the van as a key moment. Goodson pulled over but did not notify dispatchers, then asked for assistance from another officer. Schatzow said it could be inferred that Goodson had hurt Gray, perhaps worse than he intended, and sought help.
Williams called "rough ride" an "inflammatory term" that is "not to be taken lightly," and said the state had failed to prove such a ride was given to Gray.
"In order to show a rough ride, there must be evidence," Williams said.
Prosecutors said Goodson knew he should have put a seat belt on Gray, while defense attorneys said Goodson deferred to other officers — including a supervisor — who had taken more active roles in Gray's arrest.
Williams said the only time the prosecution proved that Goodson had neglected his duty to secure Gray with a seat belt was at the van's fourth stop.
"The failure to seat-belt may have been a mistake or it may have been bad judgment, but without showing more than has been presented to the court concerning the failure to seat-belt and the surrounding circumstances, the state has failed to meet its burden to show that the actions of the defendant rose above mere civil negligence," Williams said.
The judge repeatedly mentioned the higher burden to prove criminal negligence, compared to civil negligence.
After three trials, prosecutors have been unable to secure a conviction on any count. The first trial, of Officer William Porter, ended in a hung jury and mistrial last December. The second, of Nero, ended last month with the officer being acquitted of all charges by Williams in a bench trial.
A juror in Porter's trial told The Baltimore Sun that the jury voted 11-to-1 to acquit Porter of manslaughter but had been leaning toward convicting him of lesser counts before deciding they were deadlocked.
In pursuing the charges against the officers, prosecutors won a victory in the state's highest court earlier this year when the Court of Appeals ruled that officers charged in the case can be called to testify under immunity against their co-defendants. As a result, to guard against the officers' testimony being used against them, two of the upcoming trials — of Porter and Miller — must be handled by a new team of prosecutors.
The next trial, of Lt. Brian Rice, who is charged with manslaughter, is scheduled to begin July 5. The other officers' trial dates are: Miller, July 27; Porter, Sept. 6; and Sgt. Alicia White, Oct. 13.
All of the officers have pleaded not guilty.
Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson and Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.