The first trial of a Baltimore police officer associated with the death of Freddie Gray ended in a mistrial Wednesday, after the jury remained deadlocked following three days of deliberations. The outcome frustrated Black Lives Matter activists and others who have argued that police too easily escape legal consequences for the use of lethal force. Baltimore erupted in protests and riots last year after Gray died of a spinal injury suffered while he was in police custody.
We don't yet know why exactly the jury deadlocked over the charges against Officer William Porter, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office, and reckless endangerment associated with Gray’s death. But the prosecution had a tough case from the beginning, in part because the jury was asked to convict not on what Porter did — but what Porter failed to do.
Unlike other cases involving police use of force against black men, Porter's attorneys didn't argue that he acted out of fear for his life. Instead, they argued that Porter had told the driver to seek medical help for Gray, and had even helped him up in the back of the van when he discovered him lying handcuffed on the floor.
The prosecution argued that by not strapping Gray in, and by failing to seek medical attention for Gray, Porter was responsible for his death. The jury might have also seen Porter as sympathetic defendant, a young black man from West Baltimore like Freddie Gray, but one who chose a very different lifestyle when he decided to become a cop.
First, the charges, as described in a set of general Maryland jury instructions posted by Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice:
To convict Porter of involuntary manslaughter, the prosecution would have had to persuade the jury that Porter "acted in a grossly negligent manner" and that his actions caused Gray's death.
To convict him of second degree assault, the prosecution would have had to prove that Porter "committed an act with the intent to place" Gray at risk of physical harm and that he was not justified in doing so.
To convict Porter of misconduct in office, the jury would have had to conclude that Porter, acting in his official capacity as a police officer, corruptly committed an unlawful act or corruptly failed to act in accordance with his duties.
To convict Porter of reckless endangerment, the jury would have had to decide that Porter acted recklessly, that he "engaged in conduct that created a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury to another" and that "that a reasonable person would not have engaged in that conduct."
Essentially, the prosecution needed to persuade the jury of two things: That Porter either meant Gray harm or was recklessly negligent in his interactions with Gray. But because Porter's attorneys maintained that he was trying to help Gray, the question of intent came down to the prosecution's word against Porters.
Though the prosecution tried to undermine Porter's credibility, one of their own witnesses may have seriously harmed their case. During the trial, Assistant State Medical Examiner Carol Allan acknowledged under cross-examination by Porter's attorneys that she would not have ruled Gray's death a homicide had the van's driver, Caesar Goodson, followed Porter's suggestion to get Gray medical attention. As BuzzFeed News' Joel Anderson reported:
“So if Goodson had followed the request of Porter and driven directly to the hospital, then you wouldn’t have considered this a homicide,” said Joseph Murtha, Porter’s attorney.
“That is correct,” Allan said.
Taking this exchange at face value would suggest that the driver, not Porter was at fault.
The prosecution also argued that by failing to strap Gray in, as department policy dictated, Porter was at fault. But the defense called Baltimore Police Captain Justin Reynolds, who testified that Porter "went beyond what he could have done and kept within (department) policy.” When prosecutors tried to question Reynolds on whether Porter should have strapped Gray in, they were shut down by a series of objections from Porter's attorneys.
The case came down to belief — did the jury believe that Porter sought help for Gray? Did they believe the police captain who said Porter acted responsibly even though he didn't strap Gray in after helping him up? Or did they agree with the prosecution that Porter acted with "callous indifference" towards Gray?
No matter which side you come down on, it's not difficult to see how reasonable doubt about Porter's culpability might have crept in to the mind of at least one juror, preventing a verdict from being reached.
Adam Serwer is the national editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, D.C. His secure PGP fingerprint is 883A 7AB8 4736 1BB9 A061 D26A F2B5 71C0 391A 0252
Contact Adam Serwer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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