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Legal experts divided on charges against Freddie Gray officers

Charges are filed against six officers in the death of Freddie Gray. Will they stick?

The decision of Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby to file charges of murder and false imprisonment against police officers in the death of Freddie Gray was both bold and novel, according to legal analysts — but some said they will be challenging to prove in court.

"She has overcharged," said criminal defense attorney Steven H. Levin, a former federal prosecutor. As a result, he said, Mosby could lose credibility with the jury, making it more difficult to obtain a conviction on any of the charges.

Other attorneys disagreed, saying it was impossible to judge the strength of Mosby's case without seeing the evidence.

Defense attorney A. Dwight Pettit said the prosecutor "is going to have a rough road to travel" — but he believes the charges are reasonable.

"At least the public will be able to see that battled out in the courtroom," he said. "For the first time, it is not swept under the rug."

Mosby said Friday that police should not have arrested Gray on April 12. She said the 25-year-old Baltimore man died of injuries he suffered during the van ride to the Western District police station.

Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr., the driver of the van, faces the most serious charge: second-degree depraved heart murder.

Criminal defense attorney Andrew I. Alperstein, a former Baltimore County prosecutor, said "depraved heart" describes a person who did not intend to kill, but acted with a reckless disregard for human life. Most second-degree murder charges do include an intention to kill.

Mosby filed charges of false imprisonment against three other officers involved in Gray's arrest.

The case could take more than a year to go to trial — and most believe it will go to trial — or for the sides to come to a plea agreement. Attorneys predicted the proceedings would be moved out of Baltimore, because it would be nearly impossible to find 12 jurors and two alternates in the city who have not been affected by the death of Gray or by the protests and riots that have followed.

Analysts said the filing of such serious charges against police in the performance of their duty — in addition to the murder and false imprisonment charges, four of the officers are accused of manslaughter — is rare. There has been no systematic collection of data on such cases.

North Charleston, S.C., police Officer Michael Slager, who was captured on video shooting a fleeing man in the back, has been charged with murder. But no charges were brought against the officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., of Eric Garner on Staten Island in New York or of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University, has studied police misconduct cases across the country.

"I can't think of any situation like this where six officers get indicted where there's these kinds of charges in one setting," he said. "It's kind of like the curtain has been pulled back with videos."

The evidence on which Mosby is basing the charges has not been made public, and legal ethics prevent her from laying the case out before the public.

In her remarks Friday morning, however, Mosby made clear that she believes that Gray's arrest was unlawful, that he was not restrained properly inside the van and that the officers failed to request medical assistance several times despite Gray's deteriorating condition.

The autopsy report could be crucial in telling the story.

The charges of manslaughter are a step down from the recklessness captured in the second-degree murder charge, according to University of Maryland law professor David Gray.

He described the distinction between second-degree murder and manslaughter as a moral decision.

"There is no bright line," he said. "It is a jury decision."

All of the officers were charged with misconduct in office. Mosby said the charge would be based on the Eighth Amendment, which protects citizens from cruel and unusual punishment.

Pettit said the charges of false imprisonment were the most unusual.

"This is the first instance I have heard of in Maryland of bringing criminal charges for the violation of a citizen's constitutional rights," Pettit said.

Mosby said she believes officers did not have probable cause to arrest Gray.

Police have said Gray was near the Gilmor Homes housing project on April 12 when he saw officers and took off running. Police have said the officers caught Gray and found him in possession of an illegal switchblade.

Mosby said the knife was not a switchblade and was not illegal.

Retired Maryland State Police Officer Doug Ward, director of the Johns Hopkins University Division of Public Safety Leadership, said there is nothing new about cases of police brutality, but the spread of surveillance and cellphone videos has given prosecutors more evidence to work with — "a big difference," he said.

If the charges are true, Ward said, "this is an egregious case."

He said the indictment would make police departments all over the country pay attention.

Sonia Kumar, an attorney with the ACLU, was gratified charges were filed but has concerns about the future.

"There is a sense that this is so long overdue," she said. "It feels like the filing of charges is an historic thing, but there is a shared understanding that this is just one moment. What happens next?"

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