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Officer Goodson, driver of Freddie Gray, faces the most serious charges

When the driver of the police van in which prosecutors say Freddie Gray suffered his fatal injuries goes to trial this week, he faces the most serious charges of any of the six officers indicted in the case.

Prosecutors also could face their toughest challenge at Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr.'s trial.

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They might have to rely on circumstantial evidence, which could complicate their case. And they do not yet know whether they can call a key witness — a fellow officer charged in the case — as Maryland's Court of Special Appeals weighs the issue.

Goodson's attorneys, meanwhile, will be defending the one officer who was with Gray from the moment he was loaded into the back of the transport van until he was found nonresponsive at the Western District police station. Goodson, whose grandfather was a police officer, is a 16-year veteran of the force.

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The Gray case has drawn intense interest amid a national debate about deaths in police custody. Tessa Hill-Aston, president of Baltimore's NAACP chapter, said observers will be watching Goodson's trial "with an even more crucial eye" in part because his role is clearer.

"Just look at everyday life — when we get on a bus, MTA, or we get on the light rail, or we catch a taxi. When we get in, we are just assuming that the driver is going to get us to our destination in the same condition that we got in," she said. "The van driver becomes totally responsible for this person's life and getting him to Central Booking in one piece, which we know in this case didn't occur."

Goodson is charged with second-degree depraved-heart murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. He also faces counts of manslaughter, second-degree assault and misconduct in office.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday.

Criminal charges are rare in cases of people dying in police custody, which are typically handled in civil courts. Maryland's highest court has defined-depraved heart murder as "a dangerous and reckless act with wanton indifference to the consequences and perils involved."

Goodson's trial is the second in Gray's death, after a mistrial was declared last month when jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict on any of the four charges against Officer William G. Porter. On Thursday, Judge Barry G. Williams ordered Porter to testify as a prosecution witness at Goodson's trial.

Porter filed an emergency appeal, and the Court of Special Appeals issued a stay on Friday preventing Porter from being called as a witness until the issue is resolved. It is unclear when a ruling might be handed down. If the matter is unresolved when Goodson's trial gets underway, legal experts say, prosecutors would have to refrain from mentioning the prospect of Porter's testimony.

In announcing the charges in May, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said Goodson drove the van "in a grossly negligent manner" despite Gray's "obvious and recognized need for medical assistance." Gray was handcuffed and shackled and unsecured by a seat belt, a violation of Police Department rules.

Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal cord injury in the April incident and died a week later, touching off widespread protests and a day of rioting, looting and arson.

At a news conference during the early stages of the investigation, then-Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said there was "no excuse" for Gray not having been secured with a seat belt. During Porter's trial, police experts and Porter testified that the responsibility to secure Gray with a seat belt was that of the van driver, Goodson.

But prosecutors could lack direct evidence to present to jurors.

Goodson is the only officer involved who did not give a statement to investigators about what occurred that day, and no other witnesses have been identified in court proceedings who can account for what happened during one stop of the van caught by a surveillance camera. Goodson was the only officer present.

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After that stop, prosecutors have said, Goodson got on the radio to dispatch and said he needed the assistance of other officers to "check this prisoner out." Porter responded.

In Porter's trial, much of the prosecution's case hinged on its claim that Gray told Porter at the fourth stop that he couldn't breathe, and that Porter — and Goodson — did nothing about it. Without Porter's testimony, the prosecution lacks that narrative in its case against Goodson.

Since Mosby's statement in May, there has been little discussion in court regarding a so-called rough ride. Prosecutors have signaled in court filings that they plan to call a retired police commander to testify about "retaliatory prisoner transportation practices."

Legal experts said that refers to what is known colloquially in Baltimore as a "rough ride," in which those arrested are driven around erratically. If handcuffed and not wearing seat belts, they can suffer serious injuries.

Prosecutors Michael Schatzow and Janice Bledsoe, as well as Goodson's defense team, are prohibited by a gag order from discussing the Gray case outside of court.

Goodson, who is free on $350,000 bail, was driving the van because he volunteered to work an overtime shift on an off day. He also worked part time as an auto mechanic.

His defense attorneys have given few hints about their strategy but submitted a disclosure to the court that lists many of the same police and expert medical witnesses who testified or were lined up to appear at Porter's trial.

Donta Allen, an arrestee in the van with Gray, is again listed as a defense witness, and attorneys have arranged for his transportation from a jail in Pennsylvania. Allen was arrested after Gray and placed on the opposite side of a dividing wall.

Police say he told them in a taped interview that Gray was thrashing around at a time when prosecutors say he would have been gravely injured. Allen has publicly renounced that statement and said he heard only a "tapping" from Gray's side. Allen was brought to Baltimore to testify in Porter's trial but was not called to the stand.

Goodson's attorneys also have signaled that they intend to call character witnesses, including Porter and Detective Syreeta Teel, the lead Baltimore police investigator in Gray's death. And they have disclosed that they might call an expert in accident reconstruction.

While police witnesses said at Porter's trial that van drivers bear responsibility for placing seat belts on arrestees, they noted that people often were not belted in and that some officers were unaware of the new Police Department rule requiring it.

Police witnesses testified that not seat-belting an arrestee could be within reason, as doing so could put an officer at risk with unruly arrestees in the confined space of the van.

Medical experts for Porter's defense tried to cast doubt on the findings of Assistant State Medical Examiner Carol Allan, who performed Gray's autopsy.

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Allan determined that his death was a homicide as a result of being fatally injured early in the van's journey through West Baltimore. Prosecutors have pointed to that finding to argue that intervention by any of the officers who saw Gray unbelted could have saved his life.

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Goodson's defense team is expected to aggressively question Allan's findings. In addition to attorney Andrew Jay Graham and former city prosecutor Matthew Fraling, the defense has enlisted attorney Amy Askew from Graham's law firm.

The inclusion of Askew is notable in a case that will feature dueling medical experts: Her work has focused on representing railroads in injury claims, as well as defending physicians and hospitals from medical malpractice claims.

Askew said at a pretrial hearing last week that Allan had given an autopsy opinion "outside the scope of her qualifications."

At Porter's trial, his statements to investigators along with piecemeal citizen video, footage from the city's closed-circuit TV network, and police radio transmissions formed the basis of the state's limited account of what happened the day Gray was fatally hurt.

Gray was arrested after running from police and placed in the back of the transport van by some of those officers.

Though video showed Gray wailing in pain, the medical examiner and prosecutors say he did not suffer serious injuries then. They say Gray was shaking the van from the inside during the first part of his ride and believe he was able to stand up despite being shackled.

The van was equipped with a camera that allows drivers to see into the back, but officials have said it was not working at the time.

As Goodson drove to Central Booking, he stopped at Mosher Street and Fremont Avenue, which was captured by a surveillance camera. Schatzow, the prosecutor, told jurors at Porter's trial that Goodson is seen walking to the back, then getting behind the wheel again.

Schatzow said Goodson made the call to dispatch "within a minute or two." Porter testified that Goodson didn't say why he thought Gray needed to be checked, which prosecutors said strained credulity. In closing arguments, they accused Porter of lying.

The Baltimore Sun reported in October that police officials investigating Gray's death in April grappled with whether to compel Goodson to give a statement to internal affairs that could have shed more light on what happened in the van. The other five officers had already given statements to investigators in the Gray case.

Under state law, a statement to internal affairs cannot be used in a criminal case. In the end, Goodson was never compelled to speak.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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