Judge Barry Williams' finding that Lt. Brian Rice was not guilty on all the charges he faced in connection with the death of Freddie Gray can hardly count as a surprise. The evidence presented in his trial was virtually identical to the evidence presented in the cases against officers Edward Nero and Caesar Goodson Jr., and there was little reason to suspect, given Judge Williams rulings in those cases, that the outcome would be any different. Simply put, the facts prosecutors were able to establish were insufficient to meet the standards of the law.
Yet the outcome in this case, as in those before it, has done little to bridge the gaps in the community. Some saw this acquittal as cause to lament the possibility that no one would be held accountable for Gray's death. Others proclaimed it the final blow to State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby's career — or even cause for her disbarment.
What we see after four trials — including last year's mistrial in the case against Officer William Porter — is that Freddie Gray's death was tragic, senseless and unnecessary yet in key respects still somewhat mysterious. We know that if Gray had been standing on a street corner in another part of town he probably would not have been chased by police, would not have been handcuffed and frisked, would not have been placed face-down with feet shackled in the back of a police van and would not ultimately have suffered a fatal spinal cord injury. But we don't know precisely when or how he was injured, and we know nothing about what was going through the heads of the officers who encountered him along the way — critical information to sustain the kinds of charges they faced. Gray was treated horribly and unjustly, but there's a big gulf between "someone must have done something" and "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
If anyone might know the answers to the crucial questions in this case, it is the other police who were on the scene, and those who have testified have served so far only to bolster the defendants' cases. Mr. Porter, called as a witness for the prosecution, even acknowledged in court that he was cooperating with Mr. Rice's defense. Such collaboration may well be in the individual officers' interests, but it is particularly damaging to a Baltimore police department striving to show it has turned a corner in its relations with the community.
Still, much has changed since Gray's death. Baltimore's police vans have been reconfigured and equipped with video cameras, and city police officers will soon all be outfitted with body cameras. Had they been in place before, we likely would at least have direct evidence of what the officers said to each other at the scene of the arrest and at the various stops the van made en route to the Western District. The police department now has a system to ensure that officers read and acknowledge new general orders, like the one issued days before Gray's death making the seat belting of detainees in vans mandatory. Ignorance can no longer be an excuse.
The Department of Justice is investigating the Baltimore police to determine whether its policies and practices violate residents' civil rights, and improving police-community relations has been central to this year's highly competitive mayoral and City Council elections. Democratic mayoral nominee Catherine Pugh issued a statement after today's judgment calling it an "opportunity to continue the public dialogue around police and community interaction." She continued: "It is not an easy conversation but a necessary one if we are to solve the long standing problems that exist." Before Freddie Gray, such talk was not a significant part of our political discourse. Guilty verdicts are not the only measure of whether justice has been done. We can ensure that it is by continuing to press for systemic changes to all the conditions that conspired to place him in the back of that van last April.
As for Ms. Mosby, we hasten to remind those dancing on her presumed political grave that a gag order has prevented her from explaining or defending her actions in these cases. She will have the chance to do that and to place these trials in the overall context of her administration's record before the next election in 2018. That said, there is little evident rationale for her to continue with the next three trials as planned. The only new wrinkle her deputies were able to provide in this case was a contention that Lieutenant Rice, as the senior officer on the scene, was culpable in a way his colleagues were not. Judge Williams found that unpersuasive. For the most part, the roles played by the remaining three officers, and the legal issues surrounding their cases, are indistinct from those that have already been considered in court. Unless Ms. Mosby's team has substantial new evidence to bring in those trials, it is hard to believe they could have any legitimate expectation that they will secure convictions. Absent that, they bear an ethical responsibility to drop the cases.
Ms. Mosby showed a willingness in this trial to drop a charge the facts would not bear out — a count of misconduct related to Gray's initial arrest — and we expect she will do so again after a thorough evaluation of the remaining three cases.