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Officer Porter didn't join police 'to swing a big stick,' attorney says

The first trial in the death of Freddie Gray opened Wednesday with prosecutors alleging that Officer William G. Porter "criminally neglected his duty" to help the 25-year-old as he suffered from an injury in the back of a police transport van.

But Porter's attorney told jurors that the young officer checked on Gray and believed he may have been faking injury or had exhausted himself after thrashing around the back of the van. Porter saw no clear reason to summon medical attention, his defense argued.

While prosecutors plan to call officers who instruct police on policies and procedures, the defense said they will call other officers who will testify that protocols are routinely bypassed as officers deal with realities on the street.

Porter's trial is the first of six for the officers charged in Gray's death, which occurred in April and touched off weeks of unrest. Defense attorneys had argued that the officers charged can't receive a fair trial in Baltimore, but a panel of 12 jurors and four alternates was seated Wednesday morning after just two days of jury selection.

Porter, 26, has pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.

The case is among several across the nation in which the deaths of black men drew protests over police brutality. Like Gray, Porter is black.

Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow told jurors in opening statements that Porter had been trained to seat-belt arrestees placed in the police vans. Gray died a week after suffering a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody.

"There was no reason not to put him in a seat belt, unless you simply didn't care," Schatzow said.

Though a citizen-shot video of Gray dragging his feet and wailing as he was arrested helped catapult the case into national prominence, prosecutors said they believe he was not injured at that point and that his life could have been saved had officers secured him or sought medical attention when he complained he was hurt. Porter is not accused of brutality, but indifference.

"The defendant is on trial for what he did, and, more important, what he didn't do," Schatzow said.

Proctor, however, painted the Baltimore Police Department as a poorly trained, short-staffed agency where officers learned on the street from other officers. He said prosecutors are portraying the Police Department as "this well-oiled machine," when it isn't.

Porter is a good cop with no record of misconduct, who was born and raised in West Baltimore and wanted to help his community Proctor said. He said Porter showed discretion on the streets — he refrained from writing citizens tickets for open containers because he knew few could pay, but he wrote them up for loitering in an effort to get them off corners and home safe.

"He didn't become a police officer to swing a big stick," Proctor said.

Porter knew Gray from prior interactions, and Proctor said he had observed Gray trying to kick out the windows of a police car. Porter told investigators: "It was always a big scene when you tried to arrest Freddie Gray."

Gray's family attended the proceedings, as did State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who sat in the front row and briefly conferred with Schatzow and Janice Bledsoe, another deputy state's attorney who is trying the case. The Gray family declined to comment, and attorneys involved in the case are under a gag order.

Porter appeared at ease Wednesday, greeting and hugging two unidentified women before the trial got under way.

Gene Ryan, the president of Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police union, sat on the defense side of the room with several attorneys for the other officers who are charged.

The jury consists of five black women, three black men, three white women and one white man. Additionally, three white men and one black man were chosen as alternates.

Earlier in the week, about 150 residents were brought in and screened to be on the jury. Forty-seven were brought back Wednesday morning and pared down by prosecutors and the defense.

Prosecutors wanted to try Porter first, saying he is a "material witness" in the cases of two other officers who have been charged. Schatzow said in his opening statement that Porter was present for five of the six stops the police van made.

Three officers are charged for their role in arresting Gray, but Schatzow made clear that the arrest is not part of the allegations against Porter. Porter arrived on the scene after police requested help dealing with a crowd that gathered after Gray had run from officers and was caught at Gilmor Homes.

Proctor said Porter initially searched the scene for someone who was with Gray but got away, and then returned as Gray was being placed in the back of the van.

The prosecution's case centers on police procedures that instruct officers to seat-belt arrestees and when to seek medical attention. Schatzow emphasized that Gray's injury occurred in the back of the van and could have been prevented or alleviated if Porter had followed those policies.

Schatzow said video shows Gray on his stomach, lifting his head and chin off the ground, and later supporting his full weight as he is put into the van.

"This is evidence of the fact that when Mr. Gray went into the van, there was nothing wrong with his spine," Schatzow said.

Schatzow said Gray was later banging around the back of the van, so much so that it caused the van to rock back and forth, which he again pointed to as evidence that Gray wasn't injured.

The van stopped various times around West Baltimore. By the time it stopped for a fourth time, at the corner of Druid Hill Avenue and Dolphin Street, Porter opened the doors and heard Gray say, "Help."

Schatzow said that Gray told Porter he couldn't breathe, which the defense disputes.

Porter picked Gray up off the floor of the van, but again did not place him in a seat belt, Schatzow said.

Police protocols in place since 1997 have required detainees posing no threat to officers to be seat-belted, and just days before Gray's arrest were updated to require seat-belting of all detainees, Schatzow said. Either way, Gray wasn't fighting the officer and posed no danger, he said.

"When those van doors closed, Mr. Gray was in a lot of trouble," Schatzow said.

Gray suffered a high-impact injury to his neck as the van continued, his autopsy states. Prosecutors were not able to pinpoint that moment, but said Gray was likely standing or kneeling when he hit his head with the impact akin to diving into a shallow pool.

That injury to his spine caused nerve damage that affected his ability to breathe, Schatzow said, but the medical examiner's office believes he was able to continue breathing for a time with the help of accessory muscles.

When the van made a fifth stop, Porter peered into the back and Gray was on his knees, slumped over. Porter described Gray to police investigators as "limp" and said the detainee responded in the affirmative when Porter asked if he needed to go to the hospital, Schatzow said.

Police picked up a second arrestee, Donta Allen, and returned to the Western District police station. Allen was unloaded first, and when police looked in on Gray, he was in the same position as he had been at the fifth stop, Schatzow said.

"Now, Mr. Gray is unconscious. Now, Mr. Gray is not breathing. Now, Mr. Gray's heart is not beating," Schatzow said.

Proctor addressed the unrest surrounding Gray's death at the outset of his opening argument, telling jurors that they "may yearn to hold someone accountable for what happened in April, but facts don't bend to your predilections."

Proctor urged the jurors to put aside what they had heard about the case already.

"Let's show Baltimore the whole damn system is not guilty as hell," Proctor said in an allusion to a line often shouted by protesters of police misconduct.

He said police officers are bombarded with emails, and Porter had never seen the new directives on seat-belting that were emailed just days before Gray's arrest. Proctor described the police academy as a crash course in police procedures and said officers instead "learn by doing" on the streets.

Porter saw Gray rocking the police van, Proctor said. He noted Gray was 132 pounds.

"Think of the energy it must have taken to make the wagon shake," Proctor said.

For that reason, Porter suspected "jailitis," or feigning injury to avoid going to jail, when Gray seemed to be lethargic, Proctor said. Porter believed Gray was experiencing an "adrenaline dump" after running from police and knocking around the back of the van, and saw no other reason to believe he was hurt.

Proctor said police procedures are not clear on when to get someone medical attention, offering them discretion for when they believe it is "necessary."

He also said that the duty to care for Gray fell primarily on the van driver, who he argued would have been able to get Gray to a hospital quickly, without waiting for an ambulance to arrive at the scene.

The van driver, Caesar Goodson, is to be tried next on charges including second-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty.

Medical technicians from emergency medical services, who arrived at the Western District station when Gray was found unresponsive, initially believed he may have suffered a drug overdose, Proctor said.

"If trained EMS misdiagnosed him, how's a two-year veteran of the force supposed to know?" Proctor said.

The state called one witness Wednesday: Officer Alice Carson Johnson, an instructor at the Police Department's training academy who provided Porter with medical response training when he was in the academy in 2013.

Carson Johnson said she teaches that officers should call for a medic when someone says they can't breathe or specifically requests a medic.

However, on cross-examination, defense attorney Joseph Murtha stressed parts of the training that tell officers to use their discretion to assess a situation. He asked Johnson whether circumstances surrounding a person's request for assistance — such as the person running for an extended time before saying they were having trouble breathing — should be considered. She said such circumstances can be part of an officer's assessment of an individual's needs.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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