Attorneys for the six Baltimore officers implicated in the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody have asked a judge to move their trials outside Baltimore City. That was only to be expected given the publicity surrounding the case and the seriousness of the charges. The attorneys claim the news media's extensive coverage of the incident has so prejudiced potential jurors against their clients that it is impossible for them to receive a fair trial in the city. But while there's no denying that virtually everyone in Baltimore has heard of the case and may even feel a personal stake in it, that's also true of the rest of the state and beyond. Moreover, there are compelling reasons why these defendants should be tried before a jury of their peers in the city they were sworn to serve and protect.
The presumption that the jury pool in Baltimore has been irreparably and uniformly tainted by the angry, emotional atmosphere created by the demonstrations following Mr. Gray's death may seem justified at first blush, but it doesn't hold up under scrutiny. The most pertinent fact is this: Juries generally are far more likely to acquit officers accused of misconduct than to convict them, and Baltimore City has been no exception in that regard. As The Sun recently reported, police in Baltimore are almost never found guilty at trial because jurors overwhelmingly tend to believe the officers' account of what happened over that of their accusers. If anything, police officers enjoy an even stronger presumption of innocence than any other type of defendant.
Not only are Baltimore jurors often more sympathetic to the defense when police officers are on trial, they are also generally more reluctant to return guilty verdicts against anyone accused of a serious crime unless prosecutors can present a near airtight case for conviction. City jurors want to see convincing evidence that defendants actually committed the crimes they are charged with, and its up to the prosecution to lay out lay out the facts in a way that meets or exceeds the standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In fact, the biggest complaint about city juries is that they let too many people off who they should have convicted rather than that they send too many innocent people to prison.
It's also not clear that the events of the last month would make city jurors predisposed to believing the officers guilty. Whatever feelings they might have about the police and Freddie Gray's death are complicated by the ensuing rioting and the wave of violence that has consumed the city. Jurors could be swayed by sympathy for Gray's family or by the Fraternal Order of Police's insistence that the indictments of the officers have had a chilling effect on policing that has led to a level of killings Baltimore hasn't seen in a generation.
Meanwhile, there are powerful reasons to keep the trial here. Central to the case is the question of what boundaries police must observe in their interactions with Baltimore residents, and that is not a standard that should be set in Prince George's, Carroll or Garrett counties. The judge should also be mindful that a verdict rendered in Baltimore — be it a conviction or an acquittal — would have a greater moral authority than one reached anywhere else and thus be more likely to be viewed as legitimate.
In the end the cases against these officers are going to be decided on the quality of the evidence prosecutors are able to present at trial, not on the emotions, prejudices and fears of the jurors hearing the case, no matter where they live. But holding these officers to account before juries drawn from the city residents who have the biggest stake in the outcome sends a powerful signal that the city is committed to seeing that justice is done, and that is the affirmation Baltimore needs most right now.