Prosecutors focus on Lt. Brian Rice's high rank as latest trial in Freddie Gray's death begins

Prosecutors dropped one of two misconduct in office charges in the trial of Baltimore Police Lt. Brian Rice.

Prosecutors opened the trial of Baltimore Police Lt. Brian Rice by zeroing in on Rice's position as the highest-ranking officer involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray, suggesting it increased his culpability in failing to keep Gray safe.

Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow started Thursday's proceedings by announcing prosecutors have dropped one misconduct charge against Rice, abandoning a previous contention that he was involved in illegally arresting Gray. But Schatzow maintained that Gray's death was caused by Rice's decision not to secure him with a seat belt after placing him in the back of a police transport van.

"He was in charge," Schatzow said in his opening statement, casting Rice as a "highly trained and promoted lieutenant" who knew the department's general orders require officers to secure transported detainees with seat belts.

"He knew it, and he ignored it," Schatzow said.

Rice's defense countered by saying Rice had been forced to make a quick decision in a volatile situation, and that his actions were "absolutely, 100 percent reasonable."

Rice, 42, is the fourth of six police officers to stand trial in the arrest and death of Gray, the 25-year-old who suffered a severe neck injury in the back of a police van in April 2015 and died a week later. Rice was on bicycle patrol near the Gilmor Homes complex in West Baltimore when Gray fled. He radioed for other officers to pursue Gray in the chase that ended in his arrest.

Rice also helped load Gray into the police van, climbing into it and placing Gray — handcuffed and shackled — on the floor without a seat belt.

Prosecutors are forging ahead with the remaining charges against Rice — involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and a second misconduct in office charge — despite the acquittal of two other officers on similar and more serious charges by Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams.

Williams is also presiding over Rice's bench trial and will decide his legal fate.

Some legal observers saw the prosecution's focus on Rice's rank as a clear attempt to draw a contrast in Williams' mind between Rice and his acquitted subordinates — Officers Edward Nero, who assisted in placing Gray in the van, and Caesar Goodson, the van's driver, who faced the most serious charges. But they said it may not be enough to secure a different outcome.

"The issue was not whether officers owed Freddie Gray a duty, so much as whether they were unreasonable or had the awareness of the risk they were putting him in," said David Jaros, a University of Baltimore law professor who was in the courtroom Thursday. "As of now, it's not clear how the state is going to meet the burden it's been unable to make in the other cases."

In his opening, Schatzow seemed focused on picking apart Rice's anticipated defense, using Rice's rank as a tool to do so. For example, he argued that if Rice was concerned that Gray presented a danger to him or others, preventing him from being seat-belted safely, he could have "ordered every officer there to assist him," Schatzow said.

Still, the prosecution presented no new factual allegations and did not suggest that Rice's initial statement to police investigators would include any major revelations.

The state's first three witnesses provided little new evidence as well.

Dr. Carol Allan, the medical examiner who determined Gray's death was a homicide, stood by her finding but struggled under cross-examination to outline the exact information that had led her to that conclusion.

Capt. Martin Bartness, chief of staff to Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and one of the architects of the policy released days before Gray's arrest that required detainees be secured with a seat belt, acknowledged that officers often use discretion when handling real-life situations.

And Andrew Jaffee, director of information technology for the police department, said Rice had received an email alerting him to the policy change, but cou0ldn't confirm he had read the email.

Chaz Ball, an attorney for Rice, countered Schatzow's theory in his own opening statement by saying Rice had made a "nine-second assessment" that it was too dangerous to secure Gray with a seat belt based on a growing crowd at the arrest scene, Gray's combativeness and the confined space of the van's rear compartment.

Ball said Gray was "banging and belligerent, he was kicking and combative" and the crowd was the most "irate" at the stop where Rice was most involved. He also said Gray was not presenting any obvious injury — blood, vomiting, distress or trauma — at any of the stops at which Rice was involved.

Ball described Gray's death as "a tragic, freak accident that nobody could have foreseen."

Douglas Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor who also watched the proceedings, said the defense seemed confident in its opening. But he also said its claim that Rice only spent nine seconds assessing Gray's situation could backfire if it means he didn't take sufficient time or care to evaluate his options.

The start of the trial followed a pretrial hearing Tuesday in which prosecutors were dealt a blow when Williams ruled they could not present evidence of Rice's training since becoming an officer. The judge said prosecutors violated discovery rules when — just days before the trial, on June 29 — they turned over to the defense 4,000 pages of documents related to Rice's training.

Officers' training has been a key component of the state's case against the officers.

Based on Schatzow's opening remarks, the prosecution will try to use Rice's rank to establish, even without his training record, that he knew the guidelines and the risks associated with breaking them. Schatzow noted that acquiring the ranks of both sergeant and lieutenant require studying for and passing exams on general orders, and said Rice is "not an inexperienced officer."

Rice was hired by the Baltimore Police Department in 1997 and promoted to lieutenant in 2011.

It is unclear how long Rice's trial will last, though Ball suggested in his opening statement that it would likely take "five or six days." Prosecutors moved through their first witnesses relatively quickly, compared to the previous trials.

Allan said that if Gray had been restrained in a seat belt, his injuries "would not have occurred." But she also said the failure to secure Gray alone would not have amounted to a homicide. Her opinion was based in part on the fact that a medic was not called for Gray when he asked for one and her reading of witness statements, which helped her determine when Gray's injury had occurred along the van route, she said.

Michael Belsky, another of Rice's attorneys, suggested Allan's opinion was based on speculation and guesswork, and questioned her method for concluding Gray's death was a homicide.

Three previous trials in the case have ended without convictions. The trial of Officer William Porter ended with a hung jury and mistrial in December, and Nero and Goodson were acquitted of all charges by Williams in bench trials in May and June, respectively.

Rice's trial is to be followed by those of Officer Garrett Miller on July 27, Porter on Sept. 6 and Sgt. Alicia White on Oct. 13. All have pleaded not guilty.

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