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Freddie Gray case: After Nero acquittal, key questions remain

Was arrest of Freddie Gray legal? Do police wagon drivers have responsibility over their prisoners?

The acquittal of Officer Edward Nero on Monday was a blow to prosecutors, but legal analysts said the verdict does not sink the cases against the five other officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray.

The case against Nero centered on two key questions: Was the initial stop of Gray last April lawful? And who had responsibility for making sure Gray was safe when a police van set off for Central Booking?

Circuit Judge Barry Williams delved into those issues Monday as he explained his reasons for acquitting Nero. But he offered no sweeping answers.

Instead, Williams was careful to clear Nero based on evidence that applied to the 30-year-old officer alone. He did not point fingers at any of the other defendants.

"It was striking," said David Jaros, a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

Williams' approach means the lawyers will still have much to argue over in court as the five other officers charged in the case head to trial in the months to come.

Still, Nero's acquittal comes as a setback for prosecutors hunting for their first win, after the trial of Officer William Porter ended in a hung jury late last year.

Legal analysts said prosecutors and defense attorneys will be revising their strategies based on Monday's outcome.

"What [prosecutors] were doing in this particular case, it didn't work," Baltimore attorney Thomas J. Maronick said. "They're going to have to go back to figure out what to refine."

And Williams' verdict will likely have lawyers for the other officers considering whether they, like Nero, should forgo a jury trial and let the judge decide their cases.

"Judge Williams said from the very beginning he wasn't going to be swayed by emotion," Maronick said. "And if you look at how the case went down, that's how it was.

"It's an absolute signpost for all the other officers."

Similarly, prosecutors could ask for a different judge. They could argue that Williams has already made up his mind about too many important facts in the case.

But legal analysts said such a move would probably not succeed.

The two sides won't have long to ponder their next move. The trial of Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., the driver of the van, is scheduled to begin June 6. Then come the trials of Lt. Brian Rice, Officer Garrett Miller, Officer William Porter and Sgt. Alicia White.

Police say officers were on routine patrol in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of West Baltimore on April 12, 2015, when they came across Gray. They say the Baltimore man saw the officers and took off running.

The officers caught Gray and placed him under arrest. He suffered a severe spinal injury in police custody and died a week later. He was 25.

The officers have been charged with violations ranging from misconduct in office to second-degree murder. All have pleaded not guilty.

While some of the questions Williams considered in Nero's trial are likely to come up again in the cases against the other officers, the judge did not tip his hand Monday.

A key issue was determining whether Nero had responsibility for making sure Gray was secured with a seat belt in the back of the van.

Williams said it was reasonable for Nero to think Goodson, the driver, might be responsible or that the senior officer on the scene, Rice, had adequately assessed the situation. But the judge did not say definitively that either Goodson or Rice had that responsibility.

"The officer who is charged with transporting a detainee may have a duty to make sure that the person being transported is properly secured, and if not, seek help from other officers if there is a need to do so," Williams said.

"However, this court acknowledges that there may be circumstances where that duty may shift or be nonexistent in relation to a particular officer."

Williams did not directly tackle the question of whether the initial detention of Gray last year was lawful. Instead, based on testimony from Miller and Brandon Ross, a friend of Gray's who was with him that morning, he concluded that Nero was not involved and shouldn't be held responsible.

Miller faces the same four misdemeanor counts that Nero did: second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and two counts of misconduct in office. And given the accounts presented at Nero's trial, the legality of the stop will be a key issue in Miller's own trial, but Williams said he had not assessed the other officer's role.

"The propriety and basis for Miller's actions are not before this court," Williams said.

Some of Williams' comments could give Miller's lawyers pause, Jaros said. The judge suggested that the police encounter with Gray changed at some point from being a detention to an arrest, which could put it on shakier legal footing.

"I would be a little nervous that he had reached that conclusion," Jaros said.

Yet on the second part of the case against Miller — that he should have known that putting Gray into the van without a seat belt was dangerous — Jaros said it's difficult now to see a way forward for prosecutors.

"That pretty much falls," he said.

Douglas Colbert, a University of Maryland professor who has been following the cases closely, said a key juncture for prosecutors could be the conclusion of Goodson's trial.

Many legal analysts think the Goodson case is the best chance prosecutors have of winning a conviction.

"I think they will go forward with the full force of evidence at the Goodson trial and see if a jury or a judge will return a guilty verdict," Colbert said. "At its conclusion, they might re-evaluate."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jean Marbella contributed to this article.

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