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Defense rests in trial of Lt. Brian Rice in Freddie Gray case; closing arguments scheduled Thursday

Closing arguments in the trial of Baltimore Police Lt. Brian Rice in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray will be heard Thursday morning after the defense rested Tuesday on the fourth day of testimony. Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams said his ruling in the bench trial will come "sometime thereafter," but did not elaborate.

Rice, 42, is charged with involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office. Williams dismissed a second-degree assault charge against Rice on Monday, and prosecutors had dropped a second misconduct charge at the start of proceedings Thursday.

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Before the trial, some legal observers had questioned what additional evidence prosecutors would present against Rice to justify his prosecution after the acquittals of two fellow officers. On Tuesday, they questioned whether any new evidence had been presented.

"We are left in a position that feels very familiar," said David Jaros, a University of Baltimore law professor who has attended all of the trials. "There does not seem to be a great deal to differentiate [this case from] the cases that came before."

Rice is the highest-ranking of six officers charged in the case, and the fourth to go to trial. The trial of Officer William Porter ended in a mistrial in December after jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict on any of the four charges. Williams acquitted Officers Edward Nero and Caesar Goodson Jr. in May and June, respectively, after bench trials.

Warren Alperstein, a local defense attorney who has followed the trials, summed up the case against Rice: "The ultimate question is, was Lieutenant Rice's failure to restrain Freddie Gray with a seat belt a criminal act? Judge Williams in Goodson's trial made it clear ... that the mere failure to restrain a prisoner with a seat belt, in and of itself, is not a criminal act."

Alperstein said the prosecution needed to show "that there was an intent to cause injury, or an appreciation and understanding that failure to restrain can cause injury. Again, there was no evidence of either."

Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died April 19, 2015, a week after suffering a severe spinal injury in the back of a police van, where he was placed in handcuffs and shackles, but not secured with a seat belt. His death sparked widespread protests against police brutality in the city, and his funeral was followed by rioting, looting and arson.

The conclusion of the defense case Tuesday afternoon came after a trial that was significantly shorter than those of the other officers. That was partly because of various stipulations entered into the record, in which both sides agreed to the submission of evidence and testimony without having it heard in court. That included testimony from the paramedic who found Gray unconscious at the Western District police station and police personnel who processed his blood samples found in the van.

Rice declined to testify on his own behalf. His initial statement to police was never introduced into evidence by the defense or the prosecution — a surprise to trial observers.

Jaros said the trial could have been shorter because, after trying the other officers, prosecutors "just learned their case better and recognized what was effective and what wasn't, and started to eliminate some of the stuff that wasn't effective." He said prosecutors showed plenty of resolve to "ensure they had the strongest case they could."

In all, prosecutors called 12 witnesses in Rice's trial — including Nero and Porter — to establish their theory that Rice was criminally negligent in not securing Gray in a seat belt in the van, and that his decision resulted in Gray's death.

The defense called just four witnesses — and was able to admit Porter's testimony from his December mistrial — to bolster its argument that Rice's quick decision not to secure Gray in a seat belt was reasonable because of a growing crowd at the arrest scene, Gray's combativeness and the danger associated with seat belting detainees in the cramped quarters of the van's rear compartment.

The defense also benefited from Nero's and Porter's testimony, despite their having been called by the prosecution, observers said.

There was less discussion of Rice's training compared with similar discussion in the other officers' trials — in part because discovery violations by prosecutors led to restrictions on their ability to present that information — and less talk of police policies governing officers' actions.

Prosecutors struggled to establish Rice's exact knowledge of the dangers associated with not securing detainees with seat belts in vans, or to establish any ill intent toward Gray. Instead, the prosecution focused on a more basic argument — that everyone knows the dangers of not seat-belting people, particularly if those people happen to be shackled and handcuffed, as Gray was.

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At one point Tuesday, Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow challenged testimony from a defense medical expert, Dr. Jonathan Arden, that a decision to secure Gray in a seat belt would not necessarily have prevented his injuries.

"That's what a seat belt does. It stops people from moving, isn't it?" an exasperated Schatzow asked, before the defense successfully objected.

Jaros said the "common-sense" argument is one easily understood, but that getting into Rice's mind remained "a hurdle" for the prosecution.

"It's a particularly difficult thing to do when the 'crime' is an act of omission," Jaros said.

As in the previous trials, much of Rice's was spent going over the stops of the police van. Gray spent 45 minutes in the van between his arrest in West Baltimore and the final stop at the Western District police station, where he was found unconscious and foaming at the mouth.

Particular attention was paid to the second stop, where Rice loaded Gray into the van on his stomach on the floor, rather than seated on the bench.

The prosecution pointed to a police general order, put in place just days before Gray's arrest, which required that detainees in vans be secured with seat belts. A previous policy had recommended belting them in, but gave officers discretion.

The prosecution used Nero, in particular, to outline what had occurred at the scene, and to establish Rice as the highest-ranking officer and the officer nearest to Gray when he was loaded into the van.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys used testimony from witnesses — including Gray's friend Brandon Ross, who was at the scene and filmed part of the arrest — to contextualize the scene in a way that fit their respective theories.

The defense, using the testimony of Nero and another officer, Zachary Novak, described a growing crowd of people "emptying out" of the Gilmor Homes public housing, surrounding and outnumbering the officers.

"There wasn't enough of us," Nero said.

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The defense was allowed to use part of the testimony from Porter's trial, in which the officer talked about providing "crowd control" at the scene and trying to get Ross and others "to calm down."

The prosecution used city surveillance footage and testimony from Ross and other residents to suggest a less threatening scene, where fewer bystanders were present than suggested by Novak and Nero.

"We wasn't rowdy," Ross said on the stand. "It wasn't nothing like that. So why couldn't we be around to see what was going on?"

The prosecution's medical experts — including Dr. Carol Allen, the medical examiner who ruled that Gray's death was a homicide — said his injuries would have been progressive. As the van traveled along its route, Gray could have asked for help from the officers, as he did, despite having already suffered severe injuries, they said.

The defense's medical experts, in contrast, said the results of Gray's injuries would have been acute, suggesting that he could have suffered them only during the last leg of the van's trip, long after Rice interacted with Gray. Arden, a former medical examiner, said Gray's death should have been ruled an accident, not a homicide.

The questions surrounding the timing of Gray's injuries, as in the previous trials, will likely play a key role in the judge's decision, legal observers said. And Porter's testimony about his placement of Gray on the van's bench at a later stop, after Rice had placed him on the floor of the van, could help the defense, they said.

"There's an argument that Officer Porter's interaction with Mr. Gray would sever the chain of causation and release Lieutenant Rice from liability for the initial failure to buckle," Jaros said. "There's one more hurdle for the state to get a conviction."

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