Roughly Speaking podcast: Halloween special: Best of horror movie music (episode 168)

Closing arguments completed in Porter trial, jury in deliberations

The jury in the trial against Officer William Porter begins deliberations.

Prosecutors told jurors Monday that Officer William G. Porter's failure to help Freddie Gray turned a police van into a "casket on wheels," while Porter's defense attorneys said the state's case was based on theories and asks jurors to make too many assumptions.

A jury of seven women and five men began deliberating after two weeks of testimony in a case in which prosecutors say Porter's failure to act rose to criminal neglect. The jurors were sent home before 6 p.m., after deliberating for about three hours, and were due back Tuesday morning.

In closing arguments, Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow accused Porter of lying in his account and suggested a "coverup."

Defense attorney Joseph Murtha said prosecutors failed to reach high legal thresholds required to convict.

"You're making a legal decision, not moral, philosophical decisions," Murtha told the jury.

Gray, 25, sustained a severe spinal injury in the back of the police van after his arrest April 12 and died a week later. Porter is charged with involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. He could receive up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charges.

Porter is one of six officers charged in Gray's death and the first to stand trial. The city is tensely awaiting the verdict, with memories still fresh of the spring unrest and riots, which prompted the deployment of the Maryland National Guard and a weeklong curfew.

Police have canceled all leave for the week, while the school system sent a letter to parents warning against student demonstrations, disorder or violence. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also activated an emergency operations center.

Before closing arguments, Judge Barry G. Williams instructed the jury on the legal requirements for finding Porter guilty. Williams slowed and looked at the jury as he told them: "You should not be swayed by sympathy, prejudice or public opinion."

Jurors heard conflicting testimony about the responsibilities of police officers, a key issue for the panel when considering whether Porter's actions were legally "reasonable." Prosecutors said officers are trained and duty-bound to act, while the defense countered that situations aren't always clear-cut and officers are allowed wide discretion.

Dueling medical experts theorized about at what point Gray's spine was pinched inside of the van, causing an injury akin to diving into a shallow pool.

Though video of Gray wailing and dragging his legs as he was arrested helped make his story go viral in a post-Ferguson climate of heightened attention to police brutality, prosecutors and the medical experts who examined his injuries did not believe he was hurt then.

Deputy Chief State's Attorney Janice Bledsoe began an impassioned closing argument by holding up a seat belt and clicking it. She also tugged at her collar, mimicking the action of an officer calling over a radio for help.

"That's all it would've taken," Bledsoe told jurors.

The state's case leans heavily on testimony from one of the police investigators, Detective Syreeta Teel, who said Porter told her that Gray complained that he could not breathe. The comment came in an unrecorded, informal phone conversation days after Gray was hurt, and Porter contends that Teel misunderstood him.

When Porter came in days later to give a formal taped statement that lasted an hour, he did not repeat the comment and was not pressed by investigators. Teel "did not waver" in her account of the phone conversation, however, Bledsoe said.

That comment and the medical examiner's determination that Gray was injured early in the arrest van's journey have been cited as evidence by the state that Porter's failure to quickly summon a medic cost Gray his life. Schatzow said Porter showed a "callous indifference to human life."

The defense said that, given the Baltimore Police Department's chain of command, Porter did more than he had to when it came to Gray's care — by helping him up to a bench in the arrest van and telling other officers that he would need to be taken to a hospital.

Since the state and the other medical experts could not specify when Gray was injured, Murtha said that undermined the prosecution's claim that Porter's actions had caused Gray's death.

"It's astonishing, and it's scary," Murtha said. "The state is asking you to make a judgment and a decision based on speculation and conjecture."

The charges against Porter put a rare question to the jury of when a police officer's failure to act rises to a crime.

Porter's lawyers have said in court that they cannot find any other case in the country where not putting someone in a seat belt was determined to be manslaughter. Legal experts also say it's difficult to find criminal cases against police officers accused of inaction.

To find Porter guilty of involuntary manslaughter, the judge told jurors, they must find that Porter acted in a "grossly negligent manner" and was aware of the risk to Gray and acted with a "reckless or wanton disregard for human life." Jurors also must find that his conduct was a "gross departure" from what a "reasonable police officer" in a similar situation would do.

On the charge of misconduct in office, jurors must find that Porter "corruptly failed to do an act required by his duties" and that it was "not a mere error in judgment" but involved an "evil motive and bad faith," the judge said. One of the first questions from jurors after they had begun deliberating was for further explanation of those terms.

To prove reckless endangerment, Bledsoe argued that Porter's inaction created risk for Gray; Gray's injuries from that reckless endangerment became second-degree assault; and his death from that assault was involuntary manslaughter.

The Police Department has directives on putting seat belts on arrestees, but two experts for the defense testified that officers have discretion and regularly break guidelines. Officers who were on the scene as Gray was arrested and transported — but were not charged in this case — agreed with Porter that arrestees are rarely, if ever, put into seat belts by officers when placed in vans.

During questioning of their witnesses last week, defense attorney Gary Proctor asked each of those officers if they considered themselves "reasonable," to which they answered yes.

Porter took the stand in his defense, saying that Gray couldn't communicate a specific problem to him and that officers routinely deal with arrestees who feign injury to avoid jail. He said he knew Gray from the neighborhood and that they had a "mutual respect."

Bledsoe said in closing arguments that said Porter had no legitimate excuse for not doing more, interspersing clips of testimony and other evidence into her remarks. She said Porter had no reason to fear Gray and appeared to recognize his medical distress enough to ask him whether he wanted to go to the hospital. When Gray said he did, Porter had a duty to transport him, she said.

Porter's attorneys said other officers involved in Gray's arrest bore the responsibility to do more. Officers Edward M. Nero and Garrett E. Miller and Lt. Brian W. Rice loaded Gray into the arrest van on his stomach with his hands and legs shackled; Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr. was the van driver and had custody of him until he arrived at Central Booking; and Sgt. Alicia D. White, a supervisor, was notified by Porter that Gray needed to go to a hospital. Those officers are scheduled for trial next year on the allegations against them.

Porter should have spoken up when he saw Gray being put into the van "like a piece of meat," Schatzow said.

Bledsoe told jurors that police "don't live in a silo" and "have a shared responsibility to each one of you."

"It is not one person's responsibility to the exclusion of another," she said.

In his first interview with investigators, Porter named the officers involved in the arrest but said he wasn't sure of their specific roles. Schatzow raised the idea that Porter was deliberately withholding information about the incident.

"What was he trying to cover up?" Schatzow asked rhetorically, using the strongest language yet on an issue prosecutors had hinted at during questioning.

Murtha said Schatzow's remarks were "not evidence." He said Porter had nothing to hide and had given a voluntary statement to investigators and taken the stand to defend himself.

He also noted disagreements among the various experts both sides put on the stand.

"You know what that means?" Murtha said. "Reasonable doubt."

Copyright © 2016, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad