Acquitted Charges In Freddie Gray Verdict Reflect Prosecution's Ongoing Difficulty Proving Fault

May 24, 2016

A Baltimore judge cleared Edward Nero, the second of six police officers to stand trial in the Freddie Gray case, of all charges on Monday.

Gray sustained a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody last April. The previous trial of Officer William Porter resulted in a mistrial, the state plans to retry Porter later this year.

David Harris, professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, said he was not surprised by the verdict in the Nero case.

“These cases in Baltimore have always been a lot (harder to prove) than I think people realized from the beginning,” Harris said.

When State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced the indictments, a lot of people assumed she had strong cases against the officers, but Harris said the state has yet to support that belief.

“They really just did not have the evidence,” Harris said. “The judge’s verdict showed that.”

Harris said that the decision to prosecute all six police officers likely went too far, and there may have been pressure not to drop the charges.

“Perhaps she did not feel that she could back away from some of them, even when the theories and the evidence were not that strong,” Harris said.

Assault was the first of four charges leveled against Nero. The state alleged that taking Gray into custody without probable cause constituted assault.

“This is novel to say the least,” Harris said.

He was also charged for misconduct in office for corruptly participating in an arrest without probable cause.  The evidence showed that Nero’s partner carried out the arrest, so the judge said Nero could not be guilty. The third charge of reckless endangerment was dismissed for the same reason.

The final charge of misconduct alleged that Nero neglected to belt Gray into the van. Harris said the state could not prove it was Nero’s job to belt Gray into the van, given that there were several officers on the scene and Nero was not the transporting officer. He said courts rarely find people guilty of a crime for failing to do something.

“You don’t punish somebody for failing to do stuff, we generally punish for doing stuff,” Harris said. “So if you can’t show that he knew he had a duty to do it, you don’t punish.”

Billy Murphy, the attorney representing Gray’s family, cautioned people who were upset with the result.

“As long as all of the evidence was heard, as long as all of the law was properly considered and as long as this was a fair process, then justice was done,” Murphy said.

Harris said the judge’s ruling was extremely narrow and does little to foreshadow future trials regarding police misconduct in Gray’s death.

“He focused on this defendant and the case and facts in front of him,” Harris said. “That’s what we want out of a judge.”

Though challenges remain for the prosecutors, Harris said future cases are more likely to result in charges. The officers that were driving the van in which Gray sustained the fatal injury have a more direct connection to his death.

“At this point, we have only had people who have had a peripheral involvement in Freddie Gray’s death,” Harris said. “As we go along we’re getting closer to what the case actually is.”

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