Maryland's second-highest court intervened Monday and postponed the trial of a Baltimore police officer in the death of Freddie Gray, potentially delaying for months the trials of all the officers charged in the case.
The Court of Special Appeals issued its last-minute order to halt the proceedings Monday morning, when jury selection was set to begin in the second-degree murder trial of fellow Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr.
The appellate court said it needs time to consider whether Officer William G. Porter can be forced to testify at Goodson's trial. Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams had ordered the officer to testify with limited immunity, and Porter's attorneys asked the appellate court for an injunction to block that.
Compelling a defendant with pending charges to testify under immunity at a co-defendant's trial would be unprecedented in Maryland. The appeals court determined that it was in the "interest of all parties" that Porter's request be handled before Goodson's trial begins.
Six officers have been charged in the April arrest and death of Gray. The prosecution has said that Porter is a "material witness" against Goodson and Sgt. Alicia D. White, who is scheduled to be tried after Goodson.
Prosecutors also sought a postponement of Goodson's trial, saying that not being able to call Porter as a witness would "result in irreparable harm to the People of Maryland by effectively gutting their government's prosecution" of two of the officers.
The postponement of Goodson's trial could throw off the schedule for all of the trials in the case, which were scheduled to occur consecutively over the next several months. White is scheduled to be tried after Goodson, on Feb. 8. The trials of the remaining three defendants are scheduled for now in February and March.
Officials with the Court of Special Appeals said no timetable for a hearing has been set, but noted that the Maryland Constitution requires a decision be made within three months.
Court officials said a decision could come sooner, but a number of steps must occur first. The parties will be given time to prepare legal briefs followed by a hearing. A written appellate ruling would be issued later.
Porter faces several charges, including involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office, in the Gray case. His trial in December ended in a mistrial with jurors deadlocked. He is scheduled to be retried in June.
Porter "is the only witness able to testify to critical aspects of Defendant Goodson's alleged role in Mr. Gray's death," the prosecution wrote in its request for a delay. Allowing Goodson's trial to move forward without Porter's testimony would "work a grave injustice that would strip the State of a legislatively and constitutionally authorized tool ... for compelling the truth from an alleged witness to murder," prosecutors wrote.
Prosecutors expressed confidence that the Court of Special Appeals would side with their argument and Williams' order that Porter must testify.
Prosecutors and the officers' defense attorneys are forbidden from discussing the case because of a gag order imposed by Williams.
Williams — who is presiding over the trials of all six officers — briefly took the bench Monday morning to note the stay by the appeals court and to place Goodson's trial in recess.
Williams noted the prosecution's request for a continuance but said that the request was "moot," given the stay ordered by the appeals court. Goodson's attorneys had objected to a continuance, asking for his trial to go forward this week, Williams said.
On Friday, the appellate court temporarily blocked Porter from having to testify, saying it needed to hear from the state and consider the issue. The state responded Friday, but Goodson's trial was still on track to begin Monday until the new order was handed down.
Gray, 25, suffered a broken neck and a severe spinal cord injury while in the back of a police transport van. His death a week later sparked protests against police brutality, and his funeral was followed by rioting, looting and arson. Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced charges against the six officers on May 1. All have pleaded not guilty.
Last week, Williams granted Porter limited immunity that the judge said protects the officer from having his testimony used against him at his retrial.
But Porter's attorneys contend that requiring him to testify would be a violation of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. They also said Porter would be vulnerable to potential federal prosecution.
The Maryland statute on immunity is "designed for people without skin in the game: witnesses. Not Officer Porter," they wrote.
In granting the motion to compel Porter to testify, Williams warned prosecutors that they were headed down a tricky path if they intend to retry Porter. "The second he testifies, it may change the game," he told them last week.
If the proceedings hadn't been halted, prosecutors asked in their motion for continuance that Porter's retrial be rescheduled to occur before the trials of Goodson and White.