Jurors in the upcoming trial of William G. Porter — one of six Baltimore police officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray — will not be sequestered in a hotel room and blocked from interacting with family members and others during the proceedings, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Judge Barry Williams rejected the argument by Porter's attorneys that "extra precautions" were needed because of Williams' decision not to move the trial out of Baltimore.
The defense attorneys argued that jurors who say they can be fair during the court's initial vetting process could be swayed later if they are "bombarded with opinions, TV news, Facebook posts and the like" during the trial. They should therefore be sequestered in a hotel with no cellphones, limited television access and sheriff's deputies monitoring their interactions with family, the lawyers argued.
Williams, however, agreed that the jurors should remain anonymous, as is standard in criminal proceedings in the state. Porter's attorneys had specifically asked that jurors be "told that their names will be screened from the outside world" so they don't feel pressure to convict Porter as a "sacrificial lamb" to avoid "further civil unrest" in the city.
Williams' denial of the sequestration request is a victory for prosecutors, who want the case to remain in Baltimore. Sequestration would have increased the burden of serving on a jury and made it more difficult to seat a panel in the city, outside observers said.
J. Amy Dillard, an associate law professor at the University of Baltimore, said the sequestration request was understandable, but such requests are rarely granted — and mostly in death penalty trials or re-sentencings where judges are concerned that jury contamination would lead to an expensive retrial.
"The same rationale follows here — these will likely be very costly felony trials — but the burden on potential jurors would be so great that sequestration would have significantly narrowed" the pool of potential jurors, Dillard said.
David Jaros, another University of Baltimore law professor, noted that courts routinely trust that jurors will obey a judge's directive to avoid news about a trial. "There's always a danger that they won't, but the law assumes that the juries will listen."
Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in the back of a police transport van after being arrested in West Baltimore on April 12. His death a week later sparked large-scale protests against police brutality. After his funeral April 27, rioting, looting and arson broke out — leading Gov. Larry Hogan to call in the National Guard and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to institute a nightly curfew that lasted a week.
Hundreds of businesses were damaged amid the rioting, more than 150 law enforcement officers were injured and hundreds of people were arrested.
On May 1, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced charges against six officers involved in Gray's arrest and transport.
Porter is charged with manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. He has pleaded not guilty.
The five other officers facing charges have also pleaded not guilty. Their trials are scheduled consecutively, through March.
The motions hearing Tuesday, which Porter did not attend, lasted less than an hour and was the last scheduled meeting before his trial — which will begin Monday with jury selection . Beyond the juror issue, Williams also ruled on evidence-related motions filed by both the defense and prosecutors in recent weeks.
Williams ruled that jurors will not be able to hear prosecutors' claims that Gray's initial arrest — by other officers — was conducted without probable cause. But they will be allowed to see two citizen-shot videos of that arrest and a subsequent stop of the police transport van in which Gray suffered the injury that led to his death. Jurors will also be allowed to see the van.
Jurors will not be given information about Gray's past that is "irrelevant" to the case against Porter, Williams also ruled.
"I generally don't allow irrelevant or inadmissible information" in any cases, Williams said.
He did not elaborate on what information he would consider irrelevant. Porter's attorneys have argued that while they do not intend on hashing through Gray's criminal history or other information about his past that prosecutors have expressed concern about, such as the city's $6.4 million settlement with Gray's family, they do intend on discussing Porter's prior knowledge of Gray.
That prior knowledge, the defense has argued, is "highly relevant," in that it speaks to the reasonableness of Porter's actions on the day of Gray's arrest.
The Baltimore Sun has previously reported that, according to a police review of Porter's statement to police following Gray's injury, Porter mentioned not being sure whether Gray was faking his injury while in the van.
In a filing this month, Porter's attorneys cited another section of his statement to police, in which he noted that he recognized Gray "from the neighborhood" and indicated that he knew of a previous incident in which Gray had allegedly fought after being arrested.
"I recall that an incident with Freddie Gray before ... where another unit tried to arrest him and he had done the same thing. He had tried to kick out the windows in the ... truck. You know, so he was always, always, like, banging around. It was always a big scene whenever you attempted to arrest Freddie Gray," Porter said in his statement, according to the filing.
Porter, 26, was present at stops of the transport van in which Gray was injured, and prosecutors allege he should have sought medical attention for Gray.
Porter's attorneys have said they expect Porter to take the stand during his trial.
On Tuesday, Williams also addressed some issues raised by prosecutors and defense attorneys by suggesting that they could be better addressed at a later date, once the trial has begun. He denied defense requests to limit the types of arguments the state can make — for instance, that the failure to seatbelt Gray in the van was "tantamount" to gross negligence — by saying the court would not "force the state to try this case piecemeal."
Williams also denied as "too broad" a defense request that prosecutors be barred from introducing any information that was unknown to Porter at the time of his involvement in Gray's arrest.
Throughout the hearing, defense attorney Gary Proctor repeatedly noted for the record his objections to Williams' decisions to allow certain evidence.
Williams was dismissive when Proctor noted that the defense has "in no way waived our motion" to move the case out of Baltimore. The attorney attempted to enter into the record a recent profile of Gray published by The Baltimore Sun, as well as a recent poll by The Sun and the University of Baltimore which looked at public perceptions of police by people inside and outside the city.
"Are these things only people in Baltimore can read?" Williams asked.
Proctor responded that they were not.
Can people in Howard County read them? Williams asked. How about people in Montgomery County?
Proctor quipped that people in Wyoming can read the article and the poll.
"Wyoming?" Williams asked. "I think you know where this is going."
The judge then made it clear he would deny any effort by Proctor to have the case removed from the city given the submission of the new documents. Proctor sought to speak again.
"Denied. Sit down," Williams said.
"May I just ..." Proctor said.
"You may not," Williams said.
Legal experts said Porter's case is being watched closely by the attorneys for the other officers because how it plays out could have implications for their clients' trials.
"How the circus, media, coverage, public response, etc., shakes out could influence future motions by the lawyers for the defendants who are later in line for trial," Dillard said.