William G. Porter, the first of six Baltimore police officers to be tried in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, faces a number of choices that could pit the desire to maintain a united front among defendants — the "blue line" — against the need to do what's best for himself.
With his trial set to begin Nov. 30, experts say Porter might decide in the coming weeks to accept a plea deal if one is offered, take the stand in his defense or remain quiet. He might also confront whether to testify against fellow officers after his trial concludes. Prosecutors consider him a "material witness" in two other cases.
All this comes amid intense scrutiny.
The public has closely watched the legal proceedings since Gray's death in April and the unrest that followed. Porter's case is considered a bellwether for the remaining cases because every potential outcome could force the prosecution and defense to reconsider their strategies, legal experts said. His case could even determine whether the trials remain in Baltimore.
"There's a lot at stake here, and I would assume the government has an interest in trying to break the defendants apart from each other," said Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University who has studied cases involving multiple law enforcement defendants. "This is a game of chicken, where the prosecutor is pushing hard hoping that this person will roll."
Judge Barry Williams ruled last month that the officers must be tried separately — in part because of questions surrounding their statements to police investigators and whether they would be mutually admissible against all of the officers in a combined trial.
The prosecution then argued to have Porter tried first, hoping his testimony could be used against Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr. and Sgt. Alicia D. White.
The Baltimore Sun has reported that Porter told police investigators he warned Goodson that Gray required medical attention, though he said he wasn't sure if Gray was faking injuries to avoid jail. Porter also told investigators he informed White that Gray needed medical attention. White told investigators she was not told Gray needed care.
Douglas Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor who has attended hearings in the case, said that "it's easy to visualize conflicting views about Porter's decision and strategy."
He said Porter is likely considering the implications of his actions on his career and on the other officers. Law enforcement officers are routinely pressured to remain loyal to one another — "to honor the code of silence" — and the influential Fraternal Order of Police, the union for rank-and-file officers, advocates such unity, Colbert said.
"The long and short of it is there is a great deal of pressure on Porter to decide what's best for him," Colbert said. "The union expects the police to stay united, the police defendants may not be comfortable with Porter's alleged statements if they implicate others, and of course Porter's lawyer is chiefly responsible to serve the best interests of the client."
Joseph Murtha, one of Porter's attorneys, said he and his co-counsel are preparing for a trial in which they "will zealously defend an honorable young man who we believe is innocent and wrongly accused." He said it would be "inappropriate" for them to discuss the case further.
A spokeswoman for Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby — who charged all six officers in the case May 1 — has said prosecutorial ethics prevent her office from discussing the case.
Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal cord injury in the back of a police transport van after being arrested April 12. His death a week later sparked protests against police brutality across the city. Hours after his funeral on April 27, rioting, looting and arson broke out — forcing Gov. Larry Hogan to call in the National Guard and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to institute a nightly curfew to restore order.
The unrest cost the city millions, damaged hundreds of businesses, and laid bare simmering tensions between police and low-income, majority-black communities. The events unfolded amid a national conversation about criminal justice and police use of force.
Attorneys for all six officers have said impartial jurors cannot be seated in the city, given the widespread publicity surrounding the case and speculation that acquittals could lead to additional unrest.
Williams, in ruling against a change of venue, said that only the jury selection process can establish whether an objective panel can be seated.
Goodson, the driver of the police van in which Gray was injured, is charged with second-degree depraved-heart murder. White, Lt. Brian W. Rice and Porter are charged with manslaughter. Officers Edward M. Nero and Garrett E. Miller face lesser charges, including second-degree assault. All six have been charged with misconduct in office. All have pleaded not guilty to all counts.
There are a near-endless number of outcomes given the complexity and unique dimensions of the entire case, said David Jaros, a University of Baltimore law professor.
"We fall into this habit of trying to guess what's going on behind the scenes," he said. But in this case, he added: "It's trying to read tea leaves when you have very few leaves to look at."
Stinson said Porter's case could shift at any moment and even take a turn during a trial if an agreement between the prosecution and defense suddenly becomes tenable. Many of the potential twists, he said, could hinge on the degree to which Porter cooperates with the prosecution.
Research shows that defendants who have rejected a proposed plea deal from prosecutors get heavier sentences if they are eventually convicted, a consideration Porter will have to weigh if a conviction appears likely, Stinson said.
"As you get closer and closer, the realities set in, in terms of risk," he said. "There's risk everywhere you turn here for both sides."
If prosecutors sense a jury might acquit Porter, or if they get the impression he might not testify against the other officers, they could "get much more generous in their plea offers," even going so far as to offer Porter immunity for his cooperation, Stinson said.
If Porter is convicted, prosecutors could try to elicit his cooperation as a factor toward leniency at his sentencing, Stinson said.
"It's a horrible process, because in this case, the officer is thinking, 'Well I didn't do anything wrong, and I want to get back on the job,' and the prosecutor is looking to get a conviction on the highest charge," Stinson said.
Porter's case also could strengthen or weaken the state's chances of convicting the other five officers, said Kevin E. McCarthy, an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice whose focus is police corruption.
"When a case is tried multiple times, it gets older, which often can make it weaker in the subsequent trials," particularly if the trustworthiness of the state's witnesses comes into question, he said.
"When people have to tell a story multiple times, inconsistencies can arise, especially if there has been aggressive cross-examination," McCarthy said.
McCarthy said the state's case could get stronger if prosecutors secure cooperation from additional witnesses — particularly from Porter.
Breaking News Alerts Newsletter
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.
If Porter testifies in his defense and refuses to take the stand at the trials of fellow officers, prosecutors could rely on transcripts of his testimony. But defense attorneys could challenge the use of the transcripts because they wouldn't be able to cross-examine Porter about his testimony.
If he is convicted, Porter might be reluctant to take the stand against fellow officers for fear of incriminating himself during an appeal in his case, legal experts said.
Moreover, the officers could face further legal action. There is precedent, for example, for federal charges even when defendants are acquitted in state court.
In the Rodney King case in the 1990s, four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in state court of assaulting King and then indicted on civil rights violations in federal court. Two of the four officers were found guilty and sentenced to 21/2 years in prison.
Legal experts said federal cases can be more difficult to prove and are brought when U.S. prosecutors feel justice hasn't been served.