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How perception dominated the Lt. Brian Rice case

How perception dominated the Lt. Brian Rice case
Lt. Brian Rice

When once-accused-and-now-acquitted Baltimore Officer Edward Nero took the stand on the third day of Lt. Brian Rice's trial, he said that as officers were working to take Freddie Gray into custody, the scene was chaotic and dangerous.

"We needed to get out of the area," he told Deputy State's Attorney Janice Bledsoe. "It was becoming a very hostile environment."

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Nero told Bledsoe there were only two officers on the scene dealing with about 18 to 20 Gilmor Homes residents, who were angry because they thought police were tasing Gray. There was no time to stop and seat belt Gray, he said. There was no time to do anything other than get Gray into the police van because the situation wasn't safe.

"We had to just move and get out of there," he said.

As Judge Barry Williams delivered his verdict on Monday, finding that Rice was not guilty for his actions that April morning, he told the court that he'd reviewed the scene as carefully as he could. There weren't 18 residents on the scene that day. When they were first putting Gray into the van, there were about 11 people around. After driving away to a second location, there were nine at the most.

It didn't matter, though.

"There is no finite definition of a crowd," he said. "To one officer, three people may be a crowd; to three other officers, nine may not be a crowd. It is a matter of perspective."

Perspective can determine whether you are fearful or fearless. Perspective can get you killed—especially if you are poor and black.

The Baltimore City Police Department has made some changes to the way that they do business since the trials over Gray's death began. They have increased the frequency of on-the-job training and taken steps to ensure that officers read and verify that they have received policy information. But how do you reform perception? How do you legislate systemic racism?

Rice faced charges of involuntary manslaughter, wreckless endangerment, and misconduct in office. Like the two officers before him, he walked because, well, Williams can't find you guilty of a criminal act if he doesn't have the black-and-white facts to do so. He said as much before delivering his verdict.

"At this time, and at all times, it is critical for this court not to base any decision on public opinion or information," he said.

A few weeks ago, a gathering was held in the city's Penn-North community to celebrate the life of recently slain rapper Lor Scoota. The vigil, which was more like a party, stretched on for hours, with people spilling onto the Pennsylvania Avenue. By the evening, city police arrived on the defensive. Officers arrested three people and charged them with disorderly conduct, saying that there were bricks and bottles being thrown at them, which most of the media reported without question.

"The general sense among the crowd is that a vigil was turned into a confrontation because of the police presence," City Paper's Baynard Woods reported.

"I understand we're only a year or so away from the unrest of 2015 so whenever something like this starts to stir our collective anxieties run high," Commissioner Kevin Davis said later, at a press conference.

But would a gathering of white people in Fells Point, or somewhere in the county, have been met with the same police presence? Perception.

It doesn't help, either, that the state, lead by Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow and Bledsoe, keep shooting themselves in the foot.

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Take for example the thread that they keep trying and failing to push that each officer is guilty of not securing Gray into the van with a seatbelt. Delivering his verdict, Williams said that he couldn't punish Rice for that without the evidence to prove that he had been properly trained and educated on how to do so. Those were solid facts he might have had, if the state had submitted about 4,000 pages of evidence related to Rice's training in time. Because they waited until just before the trial began to turn the massive files over to the defense, Williams ruled that they couldn't be used at all.

"The state did not offer the defendant's academy records or training records into evidence. The court is mindful of the fact that as a discovery sanction, the state was precluded from presenting certain documents into evidence and that those documents may or may not have been relevant to the defendant's training concerning seat-belting a prisoner in a transport wagon. But again, the inability to present that evidence was based on a discovery violation by the State and the State must bear responsibility for its failure to provide discovery," Williams said.

"The state's choice not to, or inability to, produce such evidence would leave the court to merely assume facts,which of course, it cannot do."

When Bledsoe delivered her closing arguments, she tried to paint Rice as an angry, aggressive cop who was unwilling to listen to the concerns of the Gilmor Homes residents who were upset about the way Gray was being treated. Rice made the choice to pursue, apprehend, and cuff Gray not because officers were in any danger, but because he had the power to control, punish, and humiliate him. To back this up, she played audio of a voice she claimed was Rice that seemed to be threatening the crowd with arrests if they didn't leave police alone. "Jail, jail, jail," the voice on the recording said.

The problem was that there was no mention of this recording during the trial and no way to verify that the voice on the recording was Rice's.

At press time, there has been no comment from Mosby about whether or not the trials will continue. Mosby was not in court when the verdict was read in Rice's case. But three losses in a row, coupled with the fact that Williams dropped one of the charges against Rice after the state rested its case, proves that the state doesn't have much of a leg to stand on.

"Both sides want me to look at it from only one side," Williams told the lawyers as they made their final appeals the Thursday before he made his decision. "I'm a vessel taking in everything that you give me."

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