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Disciplinary trial begins for van driver in Freddie Gray case

Reporter Kevin Rector on the first day of Officer Caesar Goodson administrative trial that's being held at the University of Baltimore Learning Commons with a three-panel trial board. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)

During the first day of Baltimore Police Officer Caesar Goodson Jr.'s administrative trial in the death of Freddie Gray, prosecutors said he was neglectful of his duty to keep Gray safe and dishonest with investigators trying to figure out what happened.

Neil Duke, the attorney prosecuting Goodson on more than 20 charges of violating department policies, said the officer's actions as the driver of the police van in which Gray suffered a spine injury that proved fatal in 2015 showed both professional and personal failings.

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After writing the words "DUTY," "RESPONSIBILITY" and "INTEGRITY" on a whiteboard during his opening remarks, Duke told the three-member panel hearing the case that Goodson had failed in all three regards. He said Goodson failed to secure the shackled Gray in a seat belt, properly investigate dangers to his safety, inspect his surroundings to ensure Gray's safety, speak with him to ensure his well-being or call for a medic when he requested one.

The administrative trial at the University of Baltimore was not a criminal proceeding — Goodson was acquitted of murder in Gray's death last year — but was about "consequences," Duke said, in an apparent nod to both Gray's death and Goodson's possible termination.

Sean Malone, Goodson's defense attorney, in contrast, cast his client as the victim of failed city and police leadership. He said city leaders are seeking to make the officer "the face of their failure" to improve training and equipment for years despite knowing that what was in place left officers unsafe when transporting detainees.

Malone said Goodson had simply focused on his role driving the van and trusted his colleagues and superiors in their assessments of Gray that day — including that he did not need to be secured in a seat belt as the van stopped multiple times and did not truly need a medic when he asked for one.

"This is a team," Malone said. "They back each other up."

Goodson faces more than 20 internal charges in the case, which is being heard by a three-member trial board of police officers and is expected to continue through at least next Monday. The charges include providing a false statement about the circumstances surrounding Gray's arrest, and neglecting his duty to keep Gray safe by failing to secure him in a seat belt.

The panel can clear Goodson of the charges against him, or sustain any or all of the charges. If the panel clears him, the decision is final. If they find him guilty, they will recommend punishment to Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who can accept their recommendation or choose his own punishment for Goodson, up to termination.

Duke and Malone's opening remarks took up about half the day. The second half was dominated by the playing of Goodson's recorded interview — which was aired for the first time publicly at Monday's proceedings — with two suburban internal affairs investigators in February, one of whom took the stand Monday to answer questions about the interview and provide context.

In the interview, Goodson, 48, said he "didn't pay it no mind" when Gray began banging around in the back of the van he was driving. He said he didn't secure Gray in a seat belt or check on him at several stops because other officers were doing so, or because he felt unsafe doing so himself. He said he didn't call a medic after Gray had asked another officer to get him one because that officer hadn't made it seem like an emergency, and because he had glanced at Gray once himself and hadn't noticed a problem.

"You can look at somebody and tell if they need to go to the hospital or if they're lying," Goodson said.

Goodson's recollections repeatedly drew stern questions from the two investigators, including Montgomery County Police Det. Sgt. Thomas Curtis, who took the witness stand Monday.

"I'm just having a problem understanding why you're not taking an active role that day as the wagon driver," Curtis said during the interview.

In his opening remarks, Duke said that recorded interview was "confused, confusing and did not comport with the evidence."

Duke argued that Goodson should be held accountable for his actions. He said Goodson had a duty and responsibility to monitor prisoners being transported and should have taken Gray to the hospital.

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He said "the evidence will show the officer had no intention of taking Gray to the hospital that morning," and that through all the stops of the van, he never made an attempt to assess Gray's well-being despite Gray's banging in the van.

He referred to Goodson as "hands-off" and "hands free" during critical stops of the van, when he said Goodson had the same amount of responsibility as, or more than, other officers involved.

Malone argued that the department failed to properly train officers and did not have a proper policy in place on how to restrain combative arrestees. He showed a picture of a smiling Goodson in his dress uniform, posed in front of an American flag.

"Police officers in Baltimore City are put in a perilous position," said Malone, calling Baltimore one of America's most dangerous cities.

Malone said department officials had looked at different types of transport vehicles in an effort to find a safer method of transporting arrestees. Malone also said the department "to this day" does not have a policy in place on how an officer is supposed to handle a combative prisoner.

During the hearing, Goodson sat at a table between his attorneys with his arms folded. Goodson has not spoken publicly about the case but has maintained his innocence.

Goodson's family members were seated several rows behind him, and hugged Goodson at intervals and at the conclusion of the day's proceedings.

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the local police union in Baltimore, was in attendance, as was a member of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, an activist group that has pressed city officials to add citizens on police trial boards.

Ray Kelly, of the community group No Boundaries Coalition, said he thought the day's proceedings showed the need for more community involvement in overseeing the police department.

Two other officers charged in Gray's arrest and death have accepted department discipline in the case. Two others are fighting punishment like Goodson, and face similar administrative trials in coming months.

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