A Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled Thursday that the trials of six police officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray will stay in Baltimore, saying the defense had failed to prove that the officers cannot receive a fair trial in the city.
Judge Barry Williams said it was premature to conclude the jury pool was tainted, and that potential jurors should be first screened. His comments left open the possibility that the trial could still be moved if that process is unsuccessful.
"The citizens of Baltimore are not monolithic," Williams said in his ruling. "They think for themselves."
Prosecutors have said they intend to first try Officer William Porter, who is charged with manslaughter, assault, misconduct and reckless endangerment, and court records show a tentative trial date of Oct. 13. Any of the officers could also elect to bypass a jury trial and have Williams decide their fate.
Defense attorneys had argued that intense media coverage and this week's surprise $6.4 million settlement with Gray's family, along with fear of future city unrest, created an atmosphere in which jurors would be biased.
Prosecutors, however, urged that moving the case without attempting to find a jury was "insulting to the citizens of Baltimore" and should be a last option.
Warren Alperstein, a defense attorney and former prosecutor who is not involved in the case and attended the hearing, said there was "very much" still a chance the trials could be moved.
"He's said, 'Let's give it a shot, and see where it goes,'" Alperstein said. "He's putting, certainly, a lot of faith in the citizens of Baltimore City to not bring any preconceived opinions and biases into the [jury selection] process."
Though death penalty-eligible cases in Maryland were routinely moved to different jurisdictions, changes of venue in other high-profile cases are rare.
Defense attorneys said in a statement that they were "obviously disappointed in the judge's ruling" and continue to have "concerns with the people controlling the prosecution of our clients."
"Now we turn to the citizens of Baltimore City, our city, and we ask you to please be patient. We ask that you listen to the entire story, and we ask you to honestly figure out what happened in that van," the statement said.
The attorneys say they believe residents will determine that the officers made "the same decisions and choices" that "any reasonable officer" would make given the circumstances presented.
Gray, 25, died in April after suffering a severe spinal cord injury while riding in the back of a police transport van following an arrest. Prosecutors have said the officers officers failed to provide medical attention to Gray.
The Gray family's attorney, William "Billy" Murphy Jr., said Williams made a "brave decision" to keep the trials in Baltimore, though he said he did not believe the judge was impacted by public pressure.
"It is rare that a jurisdiction should be deprived of handling its own criminal business," Murphy said.
Protesters who gathered outside the courthouse also applauded the judge's decision.
"I think it's terrific," said Julie MacGregor, who has protested during both pretrial motions hearings. "It's a huge relief. It's a jury of your peers. They should be tried here."
"Without the pressure of our presence, and the power of our presence, only God knows what would've happened," said protester Ariane McBride, 35.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she was "conifident that the judge has made the right decision" and praised protesters and police for peaceful demonstrations.
Thursday's hearing followed one last week in which Williams ruled against defense motions to dismiss the charges against the officers and to recuse State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby's office from the case. He also ruled that the six officers be tried separately.
In those rulings as well as Thursday's, Williams acknowledged concerns but ruled that defense claims were premature or overreaching. In ruling not to move the trial, Williams said he was unconvinced that media coverage had influenced citizens — at least not any more than residents of other jurisdictions, saying the coverage had been "local, state, national, international."
Defense attorneys had also argued that comments from public officials may have influenced potential jurors, but Williams said citizens have shown that comments from their leaders "sometimes mean very little to them."
"The only way to get to this issue is to inquire of potential jurors, and not assume they cannot be fair," he said.
Ivan Bates, an attorney for Sgt. Alicia White, argued on behalf of all six officers Thursday. He said city residents were under siege during the April unrest and confined to their homes by the curfew, and as jurors would feel pressure to convict the officers to prevent more disturbances.
"They will know they must find our client guilty so they can go home to their community," Bates said.
The task is more challenging with six trials, each requiring its own jury pool from which the two sides must find 12 jurors, plus alternates, he said.
Bates began and ended his presentation by quoting an argument made in court filings by prosecutors, in which they were justifying Mosby's comments made during a press conference announcing the charges against the officers. In that court filing, prosecutors had argued that Mosby restored order to Baltimore "before the entire city became an armed camp or was burned to the ground." Bates said those remarks helped highlight the intense experiences and feelings around the case.
Michael Schatzow, the chief deputy of the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office, retorted that the court should try to find an impartial panel.
"Nobody knows what the sentiment of the jurors are until you ask them questions about it," Schatzow said to Williams. He said the notion that an unbiased panel can't be found among nearly 300,000 potential jurors was "insulting to the citizenry of Baltimore."
He said the state "concedes" that the case has been surrounded by unprecedented publicity, but noted much of it wasn't focused on conduct of the officers, but criticism of the State's Attorney's Office.
Schatzow pointed to the trial of D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad in Montgomery County. He said residents there had been subjected to more than 20 days of fear of being shot, whereas in Baltimore, residents experienced less than a week of unrest or under curfew. That trial remained in Montgomery County, though charges against Muhammad in Northern Virginia were moved to Virginia Beach.
During an afternoon hearing, Williams heard arguments on defense motions seeking additional records related to the State's Attorney's Office's investigation of the case. The defense has said prosecutors and their staff have made themselves witnesses by going beyond the normal role of prosecutors, and that they should receive materials normally not disclosed.
Deputy State's Attorney Janice Bledsoe argued the state has turned over the evidence that is required to under discovery rules.
Williams agreed with the defense argument that the State's Attorney's Office was acting as an investigative agency, but denied two subpoena motions saying they were overly broad. He said he would consider granting more narrowly tailored requests.
Protests during the hearings Thursday and last week have been relatively muted, with a few dozen gathering outside the downtown courthouse each time. One protester, Darius Kwame Rosebaugh, who is known as Kwame Rose, was arrested last week, and another, the Rev. Westley West, was charged Wednesday in connection with last week's demonstrations. West, whose charges included attempting to incite a riot for stopping traffic, was released Thursday on his own recognizance.
West, of the Faith Empowered Ministries, said he was involved in a "peaceful protest where I was targeted as a leader, and false charges were placed on me that I damaged vehicles, that I held people against their will. I think it was a way of keeping me from the protest today."
West said he will continue to protest. "I will be out with bells on. It will not stop me from being who I am and doing what I do."
One protester was arrested Thursday morning outside the courthouse, according to Maj. Sabrina Tapp-Harper of the city Sheriff's Office. Ryan "Randi" Arrendell, 25, was arrested for failure to obey and related charges after she refused to move to an area designated for protesters, Tapp-Harper said.
Arrendell, of the District of Columbia, was released from Central Booking around 6 p.m. and met outside by Rose and other Baltimore activists. "There was a media zone and a peaceful assembly zone," she said she was told before her arrest on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse. "I was in the wrong zone."
She said she came to Baltimore because it is "important to continue to show support for Freddie Gray" and his family – especially through the "emotional toll" of six trials.
Sun reporters Jessica Anderson and Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.