Kevin Rector reports on the fifth day of Officer Lt. Brian Rice's trial in the death of Freddie Gray. Judge Barry Williams ruling is scheduled for Monday. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
During closing arguments Thursday in the trial of Baltimore Police Lt. Brian Rice, prosecutors and defense attorneys described very different scenes at the West Baltimore corner where Rice loaded a handcuffed and shackled Freddie Gray onto the floor of a police van.
Rice, 42, is charged with involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office in Gray's arrest and death last year, and his decision not to secure Gray in a seat belt is at the core of the case. Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams said he will issue a ruling in the bench trial at 10 a.m. Monday.
Deputy State's Attorney Janice Bledsoe used city surveillance footage to show that the crowd at the scene of Gray's arrest was not particularly large, and said the people there — including Brandon Ross, Gray's friend — were not threatening the officers but "begging" them to treat Gray better.
She said Rice was simply uncaring, and that Gray is dead because of it.
Michael Belsky, Rice's attorney, cited other evidence, including testimony from other officers, to suggest a more volatile scene. He quoted directly from a video Ross shot in which a member of the crowd can be heard yelling, "Pop this dumb— m—f—. I'll bust them."
"These aren't cavalier, light-hearted words when you are a police officer trying to restore order," Belsky said.
Williams took in both theories with his usual inquisitive manner. The corners of his mouth drooped at times, his eyebrows arched at others.
In the end, he seemed skeptical of both accounts, saying that each side wants him to view the evidence "in a vacuum" rather than in context.
"They're saying it was the most horrible situation going on," he told Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow. "You're saying it was a walk in the park."
The debate is important, legal observers said, because Rice must be judged on the reasonableness of his actions — and a threatening crowd would help the defense to explain them.
"It goes to what Lieutenant Rice was thinking," said David Jaros, a University of Baltimore law professor.
Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died in April 2015 after suffering a severe spinal injury in police custody. His death a week later sparked widespread protests against police brutality.
Rice, the highest-ranking officer on duty in the Western District that day, is the fourth of six officers charged in the case to go to trial.
The trial of Officer William Porter ended in a mistrial in December after a jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on any of the four charges against him. Williams acquitted Officers Edward Nero and Caesar Goodson Jr. of all charges in bench trials.
Douglas Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor who watched the closing arguments, said prosecutors are "aware of the challenges in convincing a judge who has already acquitted two officers."
Still, he said, they seemed intent on convincing Williams "that the evidence in this case — not against the rookie officer, not the two-year officer, but against the veteran commanding officer — is such that it shows he failed in his duty to protect Freddie Gray."
To gain a conviction on the charge of involuntary manslaughter, prosecutors must prove that Rice acted in a grossly negligent manner and was aware of the risks to Gray but disregarded them. For reckless endangerment, they must prove that Rice was aware of the risks and acted unreasonably. For misconduct, they must prove the lieutenant corruptly failed to carry out an act required of him.
Part of the prosecution's struggle in the previous trials was the difficulty of getting into the officers' heads to show their awareness of the risks of not putting a seat belt on Gray and that their decisions were unreasonable based on what they understood at the time.
The same held true during Rice's trial.
On Thursday, Williams repeatedly asked Schatzow what evidence had been produced to show that the dangers to Gray were "foreseeable" by Rice. He also asked whether the prosecution was alleging that the failure to put a seat belt on Gray was a criminal act.
"The simple fact he didn't do it means he's guilty of these crimes?" Williams asked.
Schatzow said it was not that failure alone, but also the circumstances that surrounded it, that constituted the crimes. He said that Rice's training and role as a supervising officer made him aware of the risks, and argued that Rice would be objectively aware of the risk, simply through his experience "as a human being" in a society that has come to acknowledge that seat belts "prevent people from becoming projectiles."
Schatzow said testimony from Nero and Porter about Gray having been combative during his arrest, particularly at the stop where Rice loaded him into the van, was "nonsense," once more suggesting collusion by the officers to protect one another.
Schatzow lambasted the defense theory in the case, saying it suggested that local citizens can't gather at an arrest scene "without apparently giving license to the police to mistreat a prisoner."
Bledsoe said Gray's death "cannot be blamed on poor judgment or error." Rather, she said, Rice's actions — including radioing for other officers to chase Gray after he ran, ordering that Gray be shackled and placing him in the police van without a seat belt — were intentional, and "put together formed a chain" of events that led to Gray's death.
"If [Rice] had broken that chain, taken one small measure of compassion or humanity," she said, "Freddie Gray would be alive."
Belsky said Rice's quick decision not to secure Gray in a seat belt was reasonable because the crowd was volatile and Gray was combative, and there are dangers inherent in securing detainees in seat belts in the tight quarters of a police van.
Belsky said prosecutors failed to present any evidence to suggest that Rice knew of the risks associated with placing Gray on the floor of the van without securing him in a seat belt.
Both sides argued over the timing of Gray's injury, a key issue at trial that played out through the testimony of each side's medical experts.
The prosecution said Gray was injured before the van's fourth stop, when Porter repositioned Gray on the van's bench. The defense contended that Gray was injured after that. The timing could play a role in Williams' verdict in the Rice case, legal observers said, because Porter's repositioning of Gray could remove the link between Rice's placement of Gray and his injuries.
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Schatzow said Thursday that that did not matter. He argued that Rice is guilty simply for having set in motion the events that led to Gray's death.
Belsky urged the judge to consider the "inventory of information" available to Rice at the time of the incident, which he said did not include the thousands of documents, videos, camera angles and testimony collected in the year since.
Schatzow urged Williams to consider all of the evidence with a healthy dose of skepticism for certain testimony, such as that of Nero and Porter, who said Gray was shaking the van nonstop after Rice placed him in it.
"Why in the world would you believe that testimony," Schatzow asked, "when the camera says it's not true?"