Freddie Gray judge prosecuted police misconduct for Justice Department

Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams
Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams (Maryland State Archives)

Before he was the judge overseeing the Freddie Gray trials, Barry G. Williams investigated and prosecuted police misconduct cases across the country for the federal government.

In Missouri, he prosecuted three officers charged with beating a high school student. In Florida, he won a conviction against an officer who pistol-whipped a teen fleeing a drug bust. He was dispatched to the Virgin Islands to prosecute — and convict — an officer there for violating the civil rights of a dozen people over a four-year period.


Douglas Molloy, a former federal prosecutor in Florida who worked on the pistol-whipping case in 2004, said Williams at that time was "basically on a tour of the eastern United States" assisting with police misconduct cases.

"His expertise in all aspects of investigating, prosecuting these kinds of cases is certainly an advantage" in the Gray case, Molloy said. "I don't know anybody better suited for this trial."


In late June, Williams was assigned to preside over the trials of six Baltimore police officers charged in the April arrest and transport of Gray, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury in the back of a police van and died a week later. The 25-year-old's death touched off protests and rioting in the city.

The first trial, of Officer William Porter, is scheduled to begin Monday.

Former Washington, D.C., police officer Lawrence Holland, who was prosecuted three times by Williams in a 2001 brutality case and eventually pleaded guilty, was more critical of Williams. He believes Williams was overzealous in prosecuting his case, and he hopes Williams' perspective has changed now that he's the presiding judge.

But Holland said that if he were a defendant in the Gray case: "I'd want to move my trial" to another judge.


Amid the glare of the spotlight on the Gray case, Williams' own history of prosecuting police misconduct has been obscured. Because his role involved joining up with local U.S. attorneys, his name is not attached to any of his cases in federal court records.

Williams, who has been a judge since 2005, was appointed by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and later elected. Judges have frequently served as prosecutors or defense attorneys, or come from private law practices, presiding over the types of cases they once litigated.

Stephen Rushin, an assistant law professor at the University of Alabama, said Williams' experience "gives him a perspective that many people aren't going to have."

"Chances are he spent time putting together files on alleged police misconduct," Rushin said. "He knows what to look for, what might be signs of particular bad behavior by officers."

That experience "cuts both ways," Rushin added, also giving Williams insight as to what does not qualify as an illegal action by police.

Williams declined to comment for this article. Administrative Judge W. Michel Pierson did not respond to questions about how he selected Williams to oversee the Gray case.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors in the case declined to comment on Williams. They are prohibited from commenting about the Gray case due to a gag order Williams imposed.

Williams, 53, grew up in Red Bank, N.J., and earned a history degree from the University of Virginia and came to Baltimore to attend the University of Maryland School of Law, from which he graduated in 1987, according to his biography.

Williams prosecuted street crimes for the Baltimore state's attorney's office for eight years, until 1997. Court records show that at the time he left, he was prosecuting serious cases such as attempted murders, robberies and felony thefts — some of the same types of crimes that the officers charged in the Gray case handled on the streets.

Williams joined the Justice Department in 1997, first as a trial attorney in the criminal section of the Civil Rights Division, then rising to the position of special litigation counsel, a supervisory role in the unit. The Justice Department declined to provide information on his role with the agency, cases he worked, or why he received the various honors listed on his resume. The agency also did not allow officials who worked with Williams to comment for this article.

Kobie Flowers, a Washington defense attorney who spent four years working under Williams from 2000 to 2004, said Williams was a "go-to" supervisor for questions about putting together a case and trying it in court. Flowers said many of the attorneys in the unit had previously worked as public defenders, and Williams' prosecutorial experience in Baltimore gave him a more rounded view.

"We had really robust debates about, 'What is justice?'" Flowers said. "Typically, these are officers who have done nothing but good all their life. Is it appropriate to take this person out of society when they may have just had a bad day on the job? Barry was very much a part of those discussions."

Flowers said cases against police are the most difficult to prosecute. While federal prosecutors rarely lose, he estimates up to a third of cases brought against police officers did not end in convictions.

Many more cases were resolved behind the scenes without charges. "You never get an award at the Justice Department for not indicting someone," Flowers said. "I've been there with Barry, where we said, 'We need to walk away from this case.'"

One of his trials occurred in 1999 in Galveston, Texas, where he was part of a team that prosecuted three jailers at a private prison who were charged with violating federal civil rights laws. Years earlier, several inmates had been reported injured — one bitten by a trained dog, another shocked with a stun gun — during a raid at the facility. While some jailers were disciplined, the local prosecutor declined to bring criminal charges.

Then a video of the incident recorded by the raid team for training purposes surfaced publicly and made national news, raising new questions about the incident. The FBI began investigating and federal prosecutors brought charges a year later.

Defense attorneys said at trial that the jailers were trying to maintain order. One defendant pleaded guilty; at trial, one was convicted of a misdemeanor; another was acquitted, and charges against a fourth were dismissed following a mistrial.

Guy Womack, a former federal prosecutor who defended one of the jailers, said at the time that the case was an overreach by the government. Reached for comment this month, he gave high marks to Williams, whom he described as aggressive but ethical during the trial.

The case against Holland, the former Washington officer, was filed in 2001, after a yearlong investigation by the FBI and multiple grand juries. Holland, a nine-year veteran who had served on the security detail for the mayor, pulled over a 20-year-old college student for allegedly running a stop sign in 1999. Witnesses said they saw Holland striking the student while he was on the ground.

Williams and co-prosecutor Gregg Maisel investigated the case together, and Maisel recalls Williams as a knowledgeable and personable attorney who lacked ego.


The first trial ended in a mistrial due to a hung jury, and the prosecutors brought the case in a front of a jury again two months later with the same result.


Maisel, who is now a top prosecutor in Washington, said many police misconduct cases are difficult to prosecute due to a lack of independent witnesses or credibility issues with the victim. But Holland's case had both going in prosecutors' favor.

"We never doubted the righteousness of the case," Maisel said.

A third trial was scheduled, and Holland pleaded guilty. Holland said in an interview last week that he had run out of money to pay an attorney, and was offered a deal that would spare him prison time. Holland says he believes prosecutors should have abandoned the case after the first two juries were not convinced of his guilt.

"It was almost like the prosecution was seeking a victory as opposed to justice," he said. He believes race played a role: He said he was offered up as a black officer to appease complaints in the black community about police. The victim in the incident was also black.

Williams at the last minute joined a 2002 trial in the St. Louis area in which three Florissant police officers were charged with civil rights violations for allegedly beating a high school student. All were acquitted by a jury.

One of the defense attorneys in the case, C. John Pleban, said the case should never have been tried.

"During the 41 years that I have practiced and the countless times that I have been involved with the Civil Rights Division, my experiences have not been pleasant," Pleban said. "I must also say that if I were representing the defendants in the Gray case, I would have some concerns about a judge who prosecuted alleged civil rights violations."

The Baltimore Police Fraternal Order of Police declined to comment.

In 2004, Williams and Molloy, the former federal prosecutor in Florida, prosecuted a county sheriff's corporal who was accused of pistol-whipping and breaking the jaw of a 17-year-old who tried to flee a drug bust.

As in the other cases, federal authorities got involved after the victim made a complaint to the FBI that the local sheriff's office wasn't doing anything about the accusations. The officer, Wayne Henderson, testified that he couldn't have beaten the teen with a gun because he discarded his weapon just before giving chase.

"An officer shouldn't give up control of his weapon, should he?" Williams asked Henderson, according to a report from the time in the Florida News-Press.

"It depends on the situation, sir," the officer said.

"You never told any of your supervisors that you threw the gun away, did you?" Williams asked.

"That's correct, sir," the officer said.

The officer was convicted, and at his sentencing Williams argued for the higher end of the sentencing range. The officer was sentenced to more than seven years in federal prison, the lower end of the guidelines.

Baltimore attorney Alan C. Cason, a longtime friend and adviser to Williams, said he had a "stellar" reputation in the Justice Department that "gives him a lot of credibility in doing what he does now."

"The ability to properly interact with the litigants, to make reasoned decisions in a deliberate and fair and calm manner, I think he exemplifies the concept of judicial temperament," Cason said.

Williams was appointed to the Circuit Court bench in 2005 by Ehrlich. The judicial nominating commission said no documents from his nomination and confirmation are available, because they are shredded after two years.

Womack, the Houston defense attorney, said of Williams, "He knows what public corruption looks like, and what it doesn't look like."

Judge Barry G. Williams

April 4, 1962: Born in Neptune, N.J.

1984: Bachelor's degree in history, University of Virginia

1987: Law degree, University of Maryland

1987-1988: Law clerk to Baltimore Circuit Judge Arrie W. Davis

1988-1989: Clerk to Court of Appeals Judge Robert M. Bell

1989-1997: Assistant state's attorney, Baltimore

1997-2005: Trial attorney/special litigation counsel, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice

2005: Appointed an associate judge, Baltimore Circuit Court; elected to 15-year term in 2006