At every murder trial, the victim's body is part of the evidence, but with Freddie Gray's death and the ensuing trials scrutinizing the actions of six Baltimore City police officers, Gray's bones are picked over again and again.
Both the prosecution and the defense draw on photographs, video, lab reports, and testimony as they literally examine Gray vertebrae by vertebrae.
Last week, at the trial for Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., who drove the police van in which Gray was injured and whose charges are the most serious (second-degree depraved-heart murder, three counts of manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and misconduct in office), Gray's spinal cord and a 3-D construction of his spinal column are displayed on a screen while the assistant medical examiner Dr. Carol Allan is on the stand. She said that Gray's spinal roots were damaged and stood firm in her final decision that Gray's death was a homicide.
Angelique Herbert, the medic who treated Gray at the Western District Police Station, said that when she saw Gray, his eyes were wide open, unblinking. He was not breathing. His neck felt crumbly, "like a bag of rocks," she said. She asked the officers, "What the fuck did you guys do?"
Predictably, Goodson's defense flipped the blame. During closing arguments, defense attorney Matthew Fraling told Judge Barry Williams that Freddie Gray caused his own death.
"We certainly don't want to speak badly of the deceased," he said, but Gray put himself in a risky situation by not staying put inside the van. He said Gray's "combative" behavior while being arrested was also to blame. "Essentially," he said, "all bets are off now."
The trial hasn't been without its share of drama. At one particularly fractious point during the trial, Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow clashed with the lead detective in the police investigation of the case, Dawnyell Taylor, alleging that the Baltimore Police were pressuring the medical examiner to declare Gray's death an "accident." Taylor denied on the stand that anyone pressured the medical examiner. Schatzow's accusation was a bombshell that might have spread if there was still a national media focus on this trial, as there was during the recent trial of Officer Edward Nero. After Nero's not guilty verdict didn't lead to rioting or much protest action, most of the national and international media packed up and moved on.
The six trials, however, still put Baltimore at the center of a grand experiment: Can putting the spotlight on police practices push a troubled city into changing the way policing is done? And can officers be held accountable for what happens on their watch?
But the trials are not going well and many court-watchers blame the State's Attorney's Office. Marilyn Mosby's lofty words when she announced that six officers would face charges for Freddie Gray's April 2015 death inspired confidence and laid the groundwork for real change.
"I assured [Gray's] family that no one is above the law and that I would pursue justice on their behalf," she said, standing on the steps of the War Memorial in May of last year. "I have been sworn to uphold justice and treat every individual within the jurisdiction of Baltimore City equally and fairly under the law. I take this oath seriously. I want the public to know that my administration is committed to creating a fair and equitable justice system for all."
One year later and Officer William Porter's trial has ended with a mistrial while Nero was acquitted of all charges earlier this month. Confidence in the State's Attorney's Office and its ability to mount a skillful case is dwindling.
Goodson's trial began with a hearing to address a serious fumble on the State's part. The SAO hadn't disclosed an interview that they did with Donta Allen, a man who briefly rode in the back of the police van with Gray. During the hearing, Williams seemed shocked that the State's Attorney's Office would make such a basic mistake, and wondered what other cases might be affected by this oversight.
Schatzow argued that it could hardly be called an interview—more like 10 seconds with an unreliable witness. He said Allen didn't say anything the defense didn't already know, and they didn't even take notes.
Judge Barry Williams was confused: Why didn't the state take notes during the interview, even if it was brief? And why didn't they disclose that the interview happened?
"Isn't that your duty, Counsel?" Williams asked. "If you don't get that, if your office doesn't get that, I don't know where we are at this point."
The state centered its case on the belief that Goodson had several opportunities to help Gray, and chose not to. Prosecutors supported their claim with testimony from Porter, who said that Gray had asked for help and said he wanted to go to the hospital. They also claimedGoodson gave Gray, who was in the back of the van in handcuffs and leg shackles, a rough ride because he was unable to brace himself for abrupt stops and turns.
But the State's Attorney's Office offered only slight evidence of this "rough ride" and neglected to produce a documented history of the practice.
The charges, specifically the depraved-heart murder charge, are hard to prove. The state's own witness, former Baltimore City Police Commander Stanford Franklin, said on the stand that he couldn't be sure that Goodson had given a rough ride based on camera footage of Goodson driving the van. Williams alluded to this, specifically the depraved-heart murder charge, when the state rested its case. After the defense moved that all charges against Goodson be dropped, Williams said it was "a closer call," but that he'd allow the charges to stand.
The good news is that these cases have pushed the Baltimore Police Department to make changes.
Shortly after the conclusion of Nero's trial, which highlighted inefficiencies in police communication and training, the Baltimore Police Department announced changes it hoped would improve both those things. The first, called PowerDMS, provides updated training and policy information to police and then tracks whether they have viewed or read it.
The second, announced a few weeks ago, was a Core Operating Policies manual, a kind of reference guide police can keep with them at all times. Officers will also get refresher training on different subjects every two weeks.
The Department of Justice has also been conducting its own investigation into the department.
As of press time, there have been very few protesters outside the Circuit Court for Baltimore City where Goodson is being tried.
It's not clear whether activists are simply tired of showing up and protesting with signs (especially because a court order doesn't allow them to gather directly in front of the courthouse) or whether they are redirecting their efforts. Some, like Baltimore Bloc, are shifting beyond marching into other forms of organizing and activism. Some activists are taking aim at Mosby and the State's Attorney's Office, insisting that they've botched the cases.
Meanwhile, five of the officers facing charges in Gray's death—strange bedfellows—have launched their own lawsuits against Mosby, accusing her of defamation and false arrest.