Freddie Gray case: Training evidence barred from Rice trial, which starts Thursday

Baltimore police Lt. Brian Rice has elected a bench trial in the latest Freddie Gray case.

Prosecutors in the next trial of a Baltimore police officer charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray were dealt a blow Tuesday when a judge ruled they could not present evidence of his training since becoming an officer.

During a pretrial hearing, Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams ruled that prosecutors committed another discovery violation when — just days ago — they turned over to the defense 4,000 pages of documents related to the training of Lt. Brian Rice, the highest-ranking of the six officers charged in the Gray case.

The trial of Rice, 42, will begin at 9:30 a.m. Thursday. Like two co-defendants before him, he has opted for a bench trial, leaving his fate in the hands of the judge rather than a 12-person jury of city residents.

Officers' training has been a key component of the Baltimore state's attorney's office's case against the officers. Prosecutors allege that the officers knowingly acted against Police Department guidelines in their arrest and transport of Gray, who in April 2015 suffered a severe injury in the back of a police van and died a week later.

The prosecution will be allowed to cite the agency's general orders and Rice's police academy training.

Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow said prosecutors obtained the documents from city officials only last Tuesday after "months and months and months" of seeking them from the city.

Williams replied, "The reality we have here: You, your office, whoever, didn't do what you're supposed to."

After the hearing, Baltimore City Solicitor George Nilson told The Baltimore Sun that prosecutors made an expanded request for Rice's training documents only on June 18. Before that, Nilson said, other items had been subpoenaed for the grand jury in May 2015.

Prosecutors were unable to respond to the claim due to a gag order prohibiting comment on the case.

Rice has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, two counts of misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. He is free on $350,000 bail.

The most serious charges against him stem from failing to secure Gray with a seat belt when he helped load the shackled 25-year-old into a police van.

Other charges relate to his role in Gray's initial arrest. Rice was on bike patrol at the Gilmor Homes complex in West Baltimore when Gray fled police, and Rice radioed for other officers to pursue him.

In two previous trials, Williams cleared officers Edward Nero and Caesar Goodson, who faced similar or more serious accusations.

Rice called for the initial chase of Gray, which prosecutors at Nero's trial said "probably" was justified under a Supreme Court ruling that allows police to chase people who flee unprovoked in "high crime" areas. Rice did not place Gray under arrest.

Rice helped Nero load Gray into the arrest van. Nero was acquitted of reckless endangerment for that interaction, in part because Williams said it was reasonable for him to defer to Rice as a supervising officer. The judge also found it was reasonable to expect that the van driver, Goodson, would ensure the arrestee was safely secured.

But Williams also found that Goodson was not criminally responsible for failing to seat-belt Gray and said there was "insufficient" evidence to determine that the failure to secure Gray with a seat belt caused his death.

On Thursday, Williams denied defense motions to dismiss Rice's indictment and to dismiss the counts of reckless endangerment and assault. Williams said prosecutors' allegations were legally sufficient at this stage, and that he was not making a factual finding.

In asking for the indictment to be dismissed, the defense cited notes from the lead police investigator in the case, which they said raised questions about the grand jury process. The Sun previously reported that Detective Dawnyell Taylor said she felt prosecutors presented misleading evidence to grand jury members.

The discovery violation related to the training materials was the latest for prosecutors, whom Williams has admonished in previous cases. Prosecutors have said in some instances police didn't give them the documents in question.

David Jaros, a University of Baltimore law professor who attended Tuesday's hearing, said the ruling on the training evidence was significant in that it could have helped prosecutors argue that Rice's academy training was reinforced through his career.

But, Jaros said, "it doesn't mean that was the slam-dunk evidence that would be sufficient to prove the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt." He is skeptical that the state can prove its case barring a revelation in Rice's statement to investigators, which has not been publicly shared.

Prosecutors have cited training to back their claim that the officers involved in Gray's arrest acted against what they were taught, and are expected to argue that Rice is more culpable as a high-ranking supervisor.

"We believe that a combination of training and [general] orders would've alerted the defendant that the conduct he engaged in was not within the scope" of how an officer should act, Schatzow said.

Prosecutors said they expected to receive the training documents from the city 30 days ahead of trial, but did not receive them until June 28, and provided them to the defense the next day.

Williams said prosecutors should have pushed city officials or sought intervention from the courts.

Schatzow shrugged and said prosecutors weren't sure if they could even prove that Rice attended the training or that it was conducted according to the curriculum. He cited the testimony of a police trainer and defense witness in the Goodson trial, which prosecutors successfully had stricken because she couldn't say for sure whether she had trained Goodson.

Nilson, the city solicitor, said Rice's training materials had been sought by the state in 2015 during the grand jury process. He said fewer items were turned over in Rice's case than were provided for other officers. Nilson said the state made no additional request for Rice's documents until June 18 and the city provided those documents on June 27 and 28.

"They got more information when they particularized the request in a way that reached the specific additional documents," Nilson said. Asked why prosecutors said they had been asking for the documents for months, he said: "Maybe things got conflated and confused."

Defense attorneys for Rice said that the late nature of the disclosure prevented them from looking into the documents or interviewing witnesses about them. They asked Williams to bar the state from discussing any training or at least to prevent discussion of the specific documents.

Michael Belsky, an attorney for Rice, indicated that the defense believed some of the training materials could be helpful to his case, but was asked by Williams to take a position on whether they should be available to both sides, or neither.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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