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Attorneys for Baltimore officers cleared in Freddie Gray case call bail debt a lingering injustice

Attorneys for Baltimore officers cleared in Freddie Gray case call bail debt a lingering injustice
Clockwise from top left: Officers Rice, White, Goodson, Porter, Nero and Miller.

When six Baltimore police officers were charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, family members and friends sprang into action to help them avoid spending even a single night in jail.

They did so the same way thousands of other lower- and middle-income families in Baltimore help loved ones avoid pretrial detention each year: by promising to pay a bail bondsman 10 percent of the full bail set by the court, regardless of the outcome in the case.

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Fifteen months later — with three of the officers acquitted and all charges against the others dropped — attorneys for some of the officers say the debt their clients assumed, and are still paying off despite being cleared, represents a lingering injustice.

They say Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby was more interested in "political grandstanding" than in justice when her office recommended bail of $350,000 for the four officers charged with felonies and $250,000 for the two facing misdemeanors.

The bail debt was particularly devastating for the four officers facing felonies, whose pay was suspended for more than a year while they awaited trial, said Ivan Bates, an attorney for Sgt. Alicia White.

White's bail was set at $350,000 after she was charged with involuntary manslaughter and other counts — all of which were dropped last month.

"She doesn't come from a wealthy family," Bates said of White, who put down $7,000 the day the charges were filed and agreed to pay a bail bondsman 70 monthly installments of $400 thereafter, according to court records. "She's really struggled. Really struggled."

Rochelle Ritchie, a spokeswoman for Mosby, said in a statement that the bail recommendations for the officers "were made in accordance with the charges and the circumstances pertaining to each of the defendants at that time."

In a case that put a focus on the way police officers are handled when they are on the other side of the criminal justice system, the bail issue was controversial from the start.

Some in the community felt the officers received special treatment, pointing to their arrival at the Central Booking & Intake Facility unrestrained in handcuffs and receiving warm welcomes from jail staff.

Activists and protesters questioned why the officers, particularly those facing felonies, would receive bail at all. They also asked why their bail would be less than that set for some Baltimore residents charged with lesser crimes — such as destruction of property — during the unrest that followed Gray's death.

Supporters of the officers, meanwhile, said the bails set for the officers were exorbitantly high for working people with strong ties to the community who were not flight risks.

Those in the bail industry say the system worked as intended, allowing the officers to go home while awaiting trial. Advocates for reform of the state's cash bail system say the financial toll on the six officers should serve as a high-profile wake-up call to legislators that something is wrong with the way the state handles pretrial defendants.

"My sympathies go out to the officers who now are left paying a surcharge on their freedom," said University of Maryland law professor Doug Colbert, who supported Mosby's decision to charge the officers, but has also been one of the state's most vocal opponents of cash bail. "Maybe the officers' bail situation will bring much-needed attention to the unnecessary use of money when people are accused of crime."

Court records show the officers' families stepped in to help them post bail.

After bail was set at $350,000 for Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., the driver of the police van in which Gray sustained fatal spinal cord injuries, a family member made a $6,500 down payment and agreed to pay off the remaining $28,500 in 100 weekly installments of $285.

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A family member of Lt. Brian Rice, whose bail also was set at $350,000, put down $3,500 and agreed to pay 63 monthly installments of $500.

A family member of Officer Edward Nero, who faced a $250,000 bail, put $2,500 down and agreed to $500 monthly payments.

Officer Garrett Miller's wife put down $2,500 and agreed to $500 monthly payments to pay off the 10 percent bail bondsman fee on his $250,000 bail.

The mother of Officer William Porter, whose bail was set at $350,000, put down $500, agreeing to pay 69 monthly installments of $500 to pay down the $34,500 balance.

While the local police union paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover the officers' legal fees — nearly doubling its members' dues to cover the costs and avoid insolvency in the process — it did not cover any portion of their bail.

"We do not post bail," said Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3. "We never have, and we don't want to go down that path."

Bates said White was forced to move back in with her mother but continued to struggle. With the charges pending against her and "because she was so high-profile, she couldn't go out anywhere and get a job," he said.

White and her mother "did what they could to make ends meet," Bates said — but they never would have succeeded without the kindness of others.

The Vanguard Justice Society, an organization of black and other minority police officers, stepped in with support, as did members of White's church in West Baltimore and other community members who "believed that she didn't have anything to do with" Gray's death, Bates said.

Some made cash donations to help cover bills; others baked dinners and brought them over so, Bates said.

Now, with the charges dropped and more than a year of back pay likely on the way, "whatever is left of the bail, if anything, she's going to go ahead and pay," Bates said.

But he and some of the other officers' attorneys say their clients should never have had to take such a financial hit.

Marc Zayon, an attorney for Nero, said Mosby's office recommended an unreasonably high bail for his client. A misdemeanor second-degree assault charge for an act of omission — like not securing Gray in a seat belt — would normally call for a $10,000 bail, he said.

Zayon, a former prosecutor, said Mosby secured the high bail amount in part by making unsubstantiated claims to the court commissioner that Nero helped cause the rioting that followed Gray's funeral.

According to the state's bail recommendation for Nero, which attorneys for the other officers said mirrored those filed against their clients, Mosby's office wrote, "Because of the defendant's actions, not only did a young man lose his life, but the social contract that holds our community together was destroyed, helping to cause Baltimore to descend into chaos and violence.

"The facts of this case demonstrate the defendant's utter lack of regard for the safety and well-being of others, causing the State to strongly believe that the defendant is a danger to the community," Mosby's office wrote.

Zayon called the claim "irresponsible and offensive," and accused Mosby of "political grandstanding" from the day she filed the charges.

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He said the argument that his client, a police officer with no criminal history, represented a danger to the community was baffling. Catherine Flynn, an attorney for Miller, agreed, saying Miller's family is still working to pay off its debt because of what she called Mosby's overreaching.

"Our clients were still working as police officers. They're not a flight risk. They were charged with misdemeanor assault. ... At what point is it appropriate to ask for a $250,000 bail?" Flynn said. "It's pretty shocking."

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