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Defense witnesses portray Officer Edward Nero as young officer with lax training

The trial of Officer Edward Nero, one of six Baltimore police officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, continues Tuesday with defense witness testimony.

Attorneys for Baltimore Police Officer Edward Nero called a string of witnesses Tuesday in an attempt to portray him as a young, earnest officer whose actions during the arrest of Freddie Gray were reasonable based on the training he had — and had not — received.

In one example, defense attorney Marc Zayon asked Sgt. Charles Sullivan — Nero's field training officer at the police academy — whether Nero had ever received training on the proper procedures for transporting detainees in police vans. Prosecutors say Gray sustained what proved to be a fatal spinal injury after being shackled and placed in a van with no seat belt.

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"No," Sullivan said.

"And do you know why not?" Zayon asked.

"Because I didn't train him on it," Sullivan said.

The defense called five witnesses — four of them fellow officers — on Tuesday, the first full day of defense testimony after the prosecution rested its case Monday. At the conclusion of the day's proceedings, Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams said the defense would conclude its case Wednesday morning and that both sides would give closing arguments Thursday morning.

Nero, 30, one of six Baltimore police officers charged in Gray's arrest and death, is charged with second-degree assault and misconduct in office in connection with Gray's initial detention and arrest, which prosecutors say were conducted without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. He is also charged with reckless endangerment and a second misconduct charge related to Gray's placement in the van without a seat belt, which prosecutors have said was done with a blatant disregard for his well-being. Nero is not charged in Gray's death.

Williams will decide Nero's fate, as the officer chose a bench trial over a jury trial. Williams did not say when he would announce his verdict.

Since the start of trial Thursday, Zayon and prosecutors — Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow and Deputy State's Attorney Janice Bledsoe — have described Nero's role and his actions in starkly different terms.

Among the evidence presented by prosecutors was a taped recording of Nero's statement to police investigators on the day of Gray's arrest, in which he suggested that he and Officer Garrett Miller arrested Gray together. In a rare move, prosecutors called Miller to the stand, citing similar language about a joint arrest in a statement he provided.

Miller's testimony Monday marked the first time in Maryland that a defendant with pending criminal charges has testified against a co-defendant in the same incident. Miller was granted a limited form of immunity ensuring that his testimony will not be used against him in his own trial, scheduled for July.

Miller testified that he alone arrested Gray, that Nero only came in contact with Gray during the initial stop and arrest to check for Gray's inhaler. Miller also described Nero helping their supervisor, Lt. Brian Rice, load Gray back into the van at its second stop.

Nero, Miller and Rice were all on bikes on April 12, 2015, when Rice called out a foot chase of Gray over police radio, Miller testified. Gray, 25, died in the hospital a week after his arrest. His death sparked widespread protests against police brutality, and his funeral was followed by rioting, looting and arson.

Zayon seized on Miller's testimony to bolster his argument that Nero's role in Gray's arrest was secondary. On Tuesday, Zayon sought to draw out fresh testimony further absolving Nero by describing his involvement as reasonable — a key standard in several of the charges against him.

In addition to Sullivan, Zayon called an academy instructor who trained Nero on bike patrol, a fellow officer who works in the Western District and a sergeant who considers himself a mentor to Nero.

Sgt. Robert Himes, the instructor, testified that bicycle officers are trained to assess "scene security" after stopping individuals, moving themselves and those they stop if necessary to maintain their safety. He also testified that it is often difficult for bike officers to use their radios to contact other officers during pursuits.

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Prosecutors have said Nero should have sought more information from Rice about why Gray's stop was warranted before allowing his detention to play out and moving him. Bledsoe suggested Tuesday that Nero could have radioed Rice as soon as he got off his bike.

Officer Aaron Jackson, a Western District patrol officer who responded to the scene of Gray's arrest, said that a large crowd of people had gathered and that Nero had called for backup units.

Sgt. Warren Stephens said he has been a mentor to Nero. Zayon asked him if Nero, who joined the force in 2012, is considered a "baby officer," and Stephens said he is. Stephens also said rookies know "the basics" about policing, "but really nothing from the street."

Sullivan said Nero's lack of training on placing suspects in vans was not Nero's fault. He described Nero as an "aboveboard" officer who showed up every day "on time, ready to go."

The final defense witness of the day was Michelle Martin, an assistant attorney general for Maryland who formerly served as the director of training for the Baltimore state's attorney's office. In her former role, Martin helped train officers on arrests and the Fourth Amendment protections civilians have against illegal searches and seizures.

Martin said she taught officers that a "Terry stop" — a term for the detention of a suspect prior to any arrest — is a "brief, temporary seizure" of a suspect permitted for officers to "confirm or dispel" a reasonable suspicion that a crime was or was likely to be committed. She said moving a suspect during such a stop can often elevate it to an arrest — which requires probable cause, a higher standard than reasonable suspicion — but that officers can move a suspect if doing so is necessary to maintain safety.

Defense attorneys not connected to the case say they have been following the proceedings with a degree of awe. They say they often make arguments in court that officers made a bad stop of their clients — and battle prosecutors who seek to justify the officers' actions. If the attorneys are successful, they can get the evidence suppressed, but they never expect prosecutors to then charge the officers.

Todd Oppenheim, an outspoken public defender, said there is an "inherent duplicity" in the prosecutors' stance in the Nero case compared to their stance defending officers' alleged violations in cases against average citizens.

He also said the prosecution's treatment in Nero's case of police general orders as strict rules contrasts with prosecutors' stance in most cases against average defendants, in which he said they often dismiss the orders as "mere guidelines."

"In my experience, the orders were mere guidelines before, and now they are treated like the gospel," he said of this case. "We've always treated the orders seriously but have been met with opposition."

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Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, the union that represents rank-and-file officers in Baltimore, has been watching the proceedings and said he trusts Williams will "keep emotions out of it, keep the politics out of it" when deciding Nero's fate.

"The only thing we ask is that he would make whatever decision he's going to make based on the facts that have been presented and nothing else," Ryan said. "That would be fair, and we all could accept that."

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