In the midst of what feels like nationwide madness — a nightmarish period of gun violence against citizens and police officers, racial tension and vulgar political extremism — Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams on Monday morning affirmed the rule of law, the heart and soul of the republic. Hearing the certainty in Williams' voice was almost soothing on a day when it seemed as if the country had gone mad.
If that sounds grandiose, good. That's my intent. A judge's constitutional duties are fundamentally grand and foundationally high-minded. In fact, before he delivered his verdicts in the trial of Baltimore police Lt. Brian Rice, the judge noted what was expected of him under Maryland law: that he find facts and render a verdict without emotion, without regard to personal prejudices or to public opinion, without sympathy to either the late Freddie Gray or to the police lieutenant accused of contributing to his death.
Had Williams gone either way — guilty or not guilty — it would have been possible to have confidence that his finding was based on careful and objective consideration of facts. No polemics. No politics. Just facts and law.
In this case, Williams said, the prosecution did not have enough evidence to convict Rice of a crime in the arrest and death of Gray last spring.
This, of course, has become almost routine by now, and it's approaching boring. Williams has so far acquitted three officers from the original Freddie Gray Six, and he's said primarily the same thing about each case. His verdicts have begun to sound like law school lectures: carefully worded, clear, concise and firm.
Maybe Williams could offer an online course in criminal evidence and the requirements for guilty verdicts.
Maybe Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby should sign up for it.
The woman who on May 1, 2015, loudly and publicly brought charges against the Freddie Gray Six — now the Freddie Gray Three — was not in Williams' courtroom Monday morning for his verdicts in the Rice case.
Where was she?
Less than a month ago, when Williams read his rulings in the case against Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., the driver of the police van in which Gray sustained his fatal injuries, Mosby sat in the front row of the gallery, directly behind her deputies on the trial team.
Monday? No Mosby.
Her office would not say where she was between 10 and 10:35 a.m., as Williams read his ruling in the Rice case. "For security reasons we do not share the whereabouts of the State's Attorney," was the response I got.
Maybe, like just about everyone else in Baltimore, Mosby expected the Rice acquittal and wanted to be spared another humiliating walk out of the courtroom and into the media arena outside the courthouse.
Perhaps she'll read the transcript of Williams' remarks about the case against Rice and understand, if she does not already, that the judge's ruling constituted a full rebuke of the state's contentions.
Rice's failure to put a seat belt around Gray's waist as he sat in a parked van on April 12, 2015, might have been a mistake, might have been a bad decision, but Williams said it did not constitute a crime. The judge emphasized the difference between civil negligence and criminal liability — and he said, as he has said before, that the state did not have sufficient evidence of a crime. In fact, it didn't even come close.
In rendering his verdict in the Goodson trial, Williams tore apart the state's case, and it took him just under an hour.
He acquitted Rice of all remaining charges Monday in just under 25 minutes.
To those disappointed with these outcomes, who have been protesting police brutality and a culture of harassment, I say this: The Freddie Gray case is not the one on which to build a new standard for conduct by police officers.
Mosby might have wanted to calm the crowds in the spring of 2015 by charging the Freddie Gray Six. Or maybe she wanted to put cops on notice that she's willing to charge them criminally when, in her judgment, they go too far and break the law.
You can argue the relative value and ethics of those motivations — how public safety might have been served, whether the state's attorney gets to bring a case because it might quell civil unrest. But you can't argue that the Freddie Gray cases were worthy of prosecution.
There was a rush in May of last year that should have made citizens uncomfortable — a rush by Mosby to bring charges, and a rush by police defenders to say she had no business doing so, that it was all a show by an inexperienced prosecutor to score political points.
Now, more than a year later, with four trials ending in one hung jury and three acquittals, with a respected judge consistently giving the state failing grades, it is time for Mosby to declare her mission accomplished — angry crowds quelled, cops put on notice — and move on to trials that matter, with real, provable criminality and sound convictions that make Baltimore a safer city.