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Prosecutors in Freddie Gray case have more experience on defense side

Michael Schatzow (second from left) and Janice Bledsoe (right) are the primary prosecutors in the case against six Baltimore police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray.
Michael Schatzow (second from left) and Janice Bledsoe (right) are the primary prosecutors in the case against six Baltimore police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

To try one of the biggest cases in Baltimore's history, the state has turned to two unconventional choices with lawyers who have more experience representing corporate and criminal defendants than prosecuting them.

Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow and Deputy State's Attorney Janice Bledsoe, who are presenting the case against the first of six officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, both joined the city state's attorney's office less than a year ago.

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Schatzow once prosecuted one of the largest espionage cases in American history but has spent the past three decades representing corporate clients, mostly in complex financial cases, counting Enron Corp. among his clients.

Bledsoe prosecuted police misconduct in a brief stint, but the majority of her experience has been as a criminal defense attorney. She once represented a police officer accused of raping a woman at a police station.

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The trial of William G. Porter, one of six Baltimore police officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, begins with jury selection Monday.

"They're not homicide prosecutors, but this is not your typical homicide prosecution," said David Jaros, a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

Schatzow and Bledsoe are seeking to prove that the police officers are guilty of wrongdoing in the death of Freddie Gray, who died in April after suffering a severe spinal cord injury while being transported in a police transport van. The case has garnered international attention since State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby stunned the legal community and law enforcement by bringing the charges.

The charges will be difficult to prove, legal experts said, as the case revolves less around what officers did than what they didn't do to ensure Gray's safety and to get him medical attention, even after he asked for it.

The trial against Porter, who responded to the scene of Gray's arrest and was present at several van stops, continues Monday in what is expected to be the first full week of testimony. Porter has pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct.

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Janice L. Bledsoe, in a 2007 photo amid the Jemini Jones trial, is one of the key prosecutors in the case against six officers charged in Freddie Gray's death.
Janice L. Bledsoe, in a 2007 photo amid the Jemini Jones trial, is one of the key prosecutors in the case against six officers charged in Freddie Gray's death. (David Hobby / Baltimore Sun)

William "Billy" Murphy, the attorney for Gray's family, said it took a "fresh perspective" on the part of prosecutors to bring the case at all.

"Part of the reason these prosecutors embarked on this is they weren't hampered down by institutional inertia and fear," Murphy said this week. "They thought it was the right thing to do, period. They didn't have ulterior motives or an ax to grind."

Porter's defense team has argued that Porter, who didn't personally arrest Gray, did tell his supervisors Gray needed medical attention. Porter's lawyers also have said the Police Department didn't properly train or notify Porter of policies and procedures, including a requirement that arrestees be seat-belted during transport.

Deputy Chief Michael Schatzow stands behind Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby during a February news conference.
Deputy Chief Michael Schatzow stands behind Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby during a February news conference. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

The defense and prosecuting attorneys are bound by a gag order prohibiting them from discussing the case outside the courtroom.

Legal experts say attorneys who have handled complex cases can transition between civil and criminal work, or the defense and prosecution sides of the trial table.

"If you're a trial lawyer, you're a trial lawyer," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger.

While prosecutors rely on having good relationships with police officers to build cases and win convictions, experts said that can make it difficult for them to press cases against them. Conversely, defense attorneys are familiar with police misconduct as they often scrutinize police actions.

Elizabeth Julian, Baltimore's top public defender, said it's rare in Baltimore for veteran defense attorneys to become prosecutors, but said anyone who makes such a move would benefit from the perspective of having helped a person accused of a crime through the legal system.

"They've seen the dark side of it," Julian said.

Schatzow began his career in the late 1970s as a federal public defender and spent seven years as a federal prosecutor, first in Louisiana and then in Maryland. Among his cases was the prosecution of John A. Walker Jr. and his son, whose espionage operation for the Soviet Union was called one of the most damaging in U.S. history.

In 1985 Schatzow went into private work, rising to partner at the Venable LLP firm. His clients included Enron, defending the defunct company from creditors, and Perdue, in a lawsuit accusing the poultry company of chicken manure pollution.

He also continued to represent indigent clients in criminal cases, such as Donald Lee Ferebe, a convicted murderer who was sentenced to death in 1994. Ten years later, Schatzow saved his life by showing that prosecutors did not follow proper procedure for pursuing the death penalty. His co-counsel said later that Schatzow had pursued the case with the tenacity of a "dog on a bone."

In recent years Schatzow became involved in reforming the pretrial system, including serving as co-counsel on a landmark 2013 Court of Appeals decision that held defendants have a right to counsel at initial bail hearings. He began pondering a return to public service, according to people who know him.

"He wanted to get into the mix, and try to help make the criminal justice system work for the people," said Mitchell Mirviss, a Venable partner who worked on the indigent defendants case with Schatzow. "He also loves tough legal challenges and to roll up his shirt sleeves and dive into a case."

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

Last year Schatzow bumped into former Prince George's County State's Attorney and fellow Venable attorney Glenn Ivey at an event for incoming Attorney General Brian Frosh. Ivey had held discussions with Mosby about her new administration, and Ivey mentioned the opening to Schatzow.

Schatzow was friends with Bernstein and had contributed $3,750 to his campaign — and none to Mosby's.

"I think he was interested in returning to public service, in part because he enjoyed it so much, and he wanted to be part of helping the city move forward," Ivey said. "I just thought them having a conversation might make sense."

In January, Mosby announced Schatzow as her marquee hire and top deputy.

Bledsoe was involved in Mosby's campaign early on. She had spent two decades as a criminal defense attorney, and in 2011 was hired by previous State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein to investigate police misconduct.

When he tapped her to lead the unit, Bernstein praised her "exemplary reputation as a skilled attorney … respected by her peers on both sides of the aisle." For 16 months she investigated and prosecuted police misconduct, charging a handful of cases.

Bledsoe left the prosecutor's office in August 2012, saying in a statement that she wanted to pursue other opportunities.

"Part of her coming back may have been to finish a job undone," said Deborah Levi, a defense attorney who has worked with Bledsoe.

Bledsoe started her career working for the Legal Aid Bureau, which provides free legal services to low-income residents. As a private criminal defense attorney, Bledsoe was involved in several high-profile cases, during which she often quizzed police officers about their work.

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She also successfully defended Baltimore Police Officer Jemini Jones, who was charged with raping a woman at the Southwestern District station. The case led to allegations of misconduct within a rogue unit to which Jones was assigned.

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But at trial, prosecutors conceded their investigation was flawed, and Bledsoe poked holes in the case, asking why detectives hadn't collected certain evidence or spoken to key witnesses. She told jurors that the accuser had made up her story to explain to others how she had avoided going to jail on drug charges.

Jones was acquitted in 2007. Charges against two other officers were dropped, and the city eventually made a public apology to two additional officers who had been wrongly implicated and paid out a settlement.

Bledsoe also defended accused murderers before juries, such as Gary Collins, one of the men charged in the death of former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., and Ronald Hinton, a 17-year-old convicted of raping and murdering a four-year-old child he was babysitting. Collins was acquitted of murder but found guilty on associated handgun, assault and robbery charges; Hinton got life in prison.

Bledsoe eventually formed a law firm with three other attorneys, taking on defendants in some of the most high-profile cases in Baltimore, including the shooting of Baltimore police Sgt. Keith Mcneill. She also represented James Smith, a police officer accused of killing his fiancee in West Baltimore, until his suicide in jail.

One of her first clients when she had returned to private practice was a young West Baltimore man charged in a drug case: Freddie Gray. In that case, Gray pleaded guilty to violating narcotics laws.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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