Freddie Gray trials belong in Baltimore

Freddie Gray died in Baltimore; finding justice in the case should come here too.

Judge Barry Williams made the right call in rejecting defense attorneys' request to move the trials of the six officers involved in Freddie Gray's arrest out of Baltimore. No matter how unusual these cases may be, there is simply no reason to assume that it would be impossible to find a sufficient number of jurors who can't make fair decisions based on the facts and the law — and certainly no reason not even to try.

Jury selection in these cases is bound to be exacting and contentious. Attorneys for both sides will closely question every potential juror to seek out signs of bias, and Judge Williams will no doubt be carefully watching the process. He has displayed a remarkable prudence so far in how he has dealt with the issues before him, and we have every reason to believe that if he has concerns about assembling a fair panel during jury selection that he can and will change his mind about the venue. But the arguments for short circuiting the process are weak.

The fact that Gray's death and the prosecution of the officers have received massive media attention is no reason to move the trials. Judge Williams rightly noted that the coverage has been "local, state, national, international" — indeed, State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby's announcement of charges against the officers was carried live on CNN International. There is no reason to think residents in another county in Maryland would have been exposed to less information about the case, and in any event, the standard for being a fair juror is not whether one has heard about the case but whether one has a preconceived notion of innocence or guilt. If Freddie Gray's family can, as their attorney says, take the view that justice for Gray means a fair trial based on the facts and the law, surely enough unbiased jurors can be found among the city's 300,000-strong pool.

Defense attorneys also argued that April's riots would prevent a fair trial in Baltimore — either because potential jurors were personally affected by the unrest or because they might fear more violence if they should decide to acquit the officers. But prosecutors were right — the unrest this spring was fairly localized to a few parts of the city, and while the mayhem of that night, the presence of the National Guard and the ensuing curfew were profound experiences for city residents generally, there is no reason to assume they would necessarily lead potential jurors to one view or another about the guilt or innocence of the six officers. The riots might just as easily make jurors biased against Freddie Gray.

And given the events of the last six months, there is no greater reason to assume jurors would be inclined to convict the officers to prevent a riot than to assume they would be inclined to acquit them to avoid alienating and demoralizing the rest of the police force. After all, far more people were injured or killed during the period of diminished police activity, as measured by the number of arrests, after the riots than were hurt during the unrest itself.

Finally, extraordinary as the civil settlement between the city and the Gray family this week may have been, it provides no compelling reason to move the officers' trials. Even if we accept the argument that jurors who hear about the settlement will be predisposed to assume that the officers are guilty, what does that have to do with venue? It's not as if jurors in other parts of the state didn't hear about it.

Changing the venue of a criminal trial is an extraordinary thing and should not be taken lightly. And this case offers even more compelling reasons than most to be tried in the jurisdiction where the alleged crimes occurred. Many of the facts are still unknown, but the precise charges and the prosecutors' narrative appear to suggest that much of the case revolves around whether the officers acted with criminally reckless disregard for Gray's life rather than whether they intentionally inflicted harm. It will no doubt get into questions about what is normal and acceptable police behavior in a high crime neighborhood and what crosses the line into criminal conduct. Baltimore needs to provide those answers for itself. As much as Freddie Gray's death has tapped into a national conversation about race and police conduct, it is a Baltimore issue, and unless there is really no way to find 72 unbiased jurors along with a handful of alternates for the six trials, it should be decided here.

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