The acquittal of Officer Caesar Goodson on all counts in the death of Freddie Gray should prompt State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby to re-evaluate whether or how to pursue the cases against the four remaining officers charged in the case. Officer Goodson, as the driver of the van in which Gray was injured, was most responsible for his safety. If prosecutors' evidence isn't strong enough to prove he was criminally responsible, it's hard to see how they could convict the others, particularly on charges of manslaughter and assault. Moreover, Ms. Mosby needs to ask whether her deputies' courtroom tactics threaten to do irreparable harm to the crucial relationship between police and prosecutors. Things got ugly during the Goodson trial in a way that didn't serve the public's interest.
From the start, the interplay between police and prosecutors in the investigation of Gray's death was unusual. Rather than the typical procedure in which police investigate and hand over their findings to the state's attorney's office for charges or potential further inquiries, Ms. Mosby announced last April that her office would conduct its own, parallel investigation. That decision had great symbolic importance at the time, as it helped reassure residents who might not have trusted the objectivity of Baltimore police to investigate their own.
But the tangible fruits of it have been hard to discern. A top deputy in the sheriff's office who was assigned to case said in an affidavit this week that he had "no involvement in the investigation whatsoever," and prosecutors have presented little evidence beyond what police found last April. Many of the police officers assigned to the task force expressed surprise when Ms. Mosby announced an aggressive slate of charges against the officers just a day after they handed over their findings, wondering what she had found that they hadn't. The answer seems to be not much.
Prosecutors promised in this trial to show that Mr. Goodson gave Gray a "rough ride," that is, that he drove erratically with the intention of injuring Gray by causing the handcuffed and shackled but not-seat-belted detainee to crash into the walls or floor of the van. But the surveillance video footage they introduced offered no convincing evidence of that, nor did they present any witnesses who had seen the van making abrupt stops, starts or turns. The best they could offer when Judge Williams probed them on the point was that their conclusions were based on "logical inferences." We'll grant that Officer Goodson's unexplained decision to stop the van and check on Gray before calling for help seems suspicious, but it's a big leap from that to depraved heart murder.
Prosecutors fought all the way to Maryland's Court of Appeals to secure the ability to compel testimony from Officer William Porter, who still faces charges after a December mistrial, and they got him to acknowledge that it would have been possible to safely seat-belt Gray. But Mr. Porter's testimony that Gray was in no obvious medical distress and was able to support his weight on his legs after the point at which prosecutors contend he received a catastrophic neck injury substantially clouded the state's narrative.
Many are second-guessing Ms. Mosby's decision last year to bring the charges she did, accusing her of acting based on political interests not on her responsibility as a prosecutor. We give her the benefit of the doubt that she and her deputies believed they had a real case. Indeed, it’s worth noting that Ms. Mosby’s office chose not to present to a grand jury the false imprisonment charges against three officers that she had initially announced. As the facts became clearer, prosecutors adjusted course.
We have arrived at a moment when it is necessary to do that again. However strongly prosecutors believed in their case, the acquittals of Mr. Goodson and Officer Edward Nero showed they simply didn't have the evidence to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. The questions in the trials of the remaining four officers — Lt. Brian Rice, Officer Garrett Miller, Mr. Porter and Sgt. Alicia White — are somewhat different, so it's possible that cases can be proven against them on some charges. But it's hard to believe at this point that they have any hope of convictions on manslaughter or assault.
Prosecutors also need to take a step back and evaluate whether they did more harm than good by accusing police of trying to steer their investigation and the medical examiner's findings toward a conclusion that Gray's death was an accident. The police investigation was anything but cursory — we know because Sun reporter Justin George was in the room for most of it — and to suggest it was a sham impugns the integrity of the 30 officers involved, up to and including Police Commissioner Kevin Davis.
Granted, the courtroom invective was not one-sided; Det. Dawnyell Taylor lashed back at prosecutors when she was on the witness stand last week, accusing them of childish behavior and dismissiveness toward evidence that didn't support their theory. But it is the prosecutors who will determine the direction and the tone of the cases going forward. (Indeed, the only reason Ms. Taylor testified in the first place was as a "remedy" Judge Williams crafted for the prosecution's failure to hand over evidence to the defense.)
Ms. Mosby will doubtless feel substantial pressure to continue prosecuting these cases as aggressively as she has so far. The preparations city leaders have made for the possibility of further violent unrest in the wake of today's decision speak to just how high the stakes are. But Ms. Mosby's job is not to mount prosecutions to placate the public. It is to follow the evidence. The courts have seen what she has in regard both to Gray's initial arrest and his ride in the police van, and they have found it lacking. Announcing such serious charges may have been reasonable last May, but continuing to pursue them now isn't.