Three lessons of the Porter trial

Here are three things we learned from the trial of William Porter.

The trial of William Porter didn't give Baltimore the clear message many were hoping for. Because it ended in a hung jury, we are still waiting for some indication of whether and how the death of Freddie Gray will lead to criminal penalties for any of the officers involved. Nonetheless, the experience of the last few weeks offers us three lessons about the city and about how these cases might go forward.

Mosby's charges weren't crazy

State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby surprised many with the speed and aggressiveness of her charges against the officers involved in Gray's arrest. Some questioned whether they were well thought through, whether she had the evidence to make them stick and whether she had cast too wide a net in going after all six officers. None of the cases may have exemplified the reasons for those doubts more than Mr. Porter's. He was a junior officer on the scene and told two of his superiors that Gray said he was hurt and would need medical attention. Moreover, he might have seemed sympathetic to jurors, since he grew up in West Baltimore and still lives in the city.

Nonetheless, at least one juror evidently was insistent that he should be convicted on each of the counts he faced, including manslaughter. Ms. Mosby's deputies made a case that convinced some subset of the jury that he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on charges that required difficult conclusions about the officer's state of mind and the murky law about when inaction constitutes a criminal offense. And they did so despite a vigorous and effective defense by Mr. Porter's attorneys. Ms. Mosby may or may not eventually secure convictions on the charges she brought, but they are at least plausible.

Baltimore can produce a fair jury

It took Judge Barry Williams less than two days to empanel a jury for Officer Porter's trial. Every single one of them knew about Gray's death and the settlement the city paid to his family, but Judge Williams found 12 he believed could be fair and base a decision on the evidence and the law.

We don't know what went on in the jury room, so we can't say whether each and every one of them took to heart Judge Williams' adminition not to be "swayed by sympathy, prejudice or public opinion." But we can say that the assumption by some that a Baltimore jury would automatically vote to convict just to avoid the possibility of more rioting was wrong. We know this group deliberated extensively and reviewed evidence before coming to the conclusion that they could not unanimously agree on the charges. At least one juror believed Mr. Porter was not guilty on each of the four counts and was unwilling to be swayed from that position.

The city is better than cynics believe

The Police Department canceled all leave when Officer Porter's case headed to the jury. State troopers and local police from around the region assembled in Druid Hill Park, and city schools CEO Gregory Thornton sent out a sternly worded letter before the decision telling students that any who walked out of class in protest would be disciplined. After Judge Williams declared a mistrial, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake urged "respect for our neighborhoods" and warned that "in the case of any disturbance in the city, we are prepared to respond. We will protect our neighborhoods, our businesses and the people of our city." News helicopters hovered over downtown, ready to capture the images if another round of riots erupted.

What they captured instead was video of perhaps two dozen protesters marching from the courthouse to City Hall, carrying signs, chanting and otherwise peacefully experessing their views. Throughout the evening, some hundreds took to the streets, either downtown or in West Baltimore, but many of them came out with the intent to prevent violence rather than to protest. To be sure, there were expressions of anger and disappointment that the jury did not convict. But those who spoke to the media frequently displayed an intricate knowledge of Mr. Porter's case and an understanding of what a mistrial means.

We're a long way from this being over, and the attitude on the streets might change markedly if we get to the end of six trials with no convictions. But those who thought the city would erupt into violence and chaos at the slightest provocation were wrong. Baltimore is better than that.

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