After prosecutors suffered a crushing defeat Thursday in the trial of Baltimore Police Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., legal analysts say their chances of securing a conviction against any of the police officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray look increasingly dim.
Goodson, who faced the most serious charges in Gray's death — including a count of murder — was the second police officer acquitted by Circuit Judge Barry Williams. A third officer's trial ended in a mistrial when the jury deadlocked.
Prosecutors reviewing a similar string of defeats might be expected to cut their losses and drop some or all of the outstanding charges, said Steven H. Levin, a former federal prosecutor. But he predicts State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby will press ahead with the four trials that remain.
"A responsible prosecutor could easily justify withdrawing charges based on new evidence," said Levin, now a defense attorney in Baltimore. "I think people ordinarily would accept that. But in this case, Mosby raised people's expectations."
A gag order prohibits Mosby and the other lawyers in the cases from talking about the outcome.
Gray, 25, died last April after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. Six police officers were charged in his arrest and death; all have pleaded not guilty.
When Williams acquitted Officer Edward Nero last month, he tailored his findings narrowly, leaving the possibility that he could still find Goodson or other officers guilty. But the judge's ruling in Goodson's case was more expansive, leaving little opportunity for prosecutors to assemble evidence against the other officers that would convince him that a serious crime was committed when police arrested Gray and drove him to a police station.
Williams asked whether any officer could have known the extent of Gray's injuries in time to help him — a question that casts doubt on the viability of manslaughter charges against three other officers. The judge was skeptical about the significance of Gray's not being secured with a seat belt in the van.
After Williams acquitted a second officer, analysts now expect the rest to opt for bench trials. Prosecutors could seek to have Williams removed from the cases, but such a move is rarely successful.
Goodson drove the van in which Gray was transported from his arrest in Sandtown-Winchester to the Western District police station. He was charged with second-degree depraved-heart murder, three counts of manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.
Goodson's trial provided the broadest examination of the evidence to date. It was considered prosecutors' best hope of securing a conviction.
"All I saw here was their best case wasn't a case," said Brian Murphy, a Baltimore defense attorney. Now, he said, it seems unlikely that prosecutors will have any new evidence to bring to bear.
The cases have turned on judgment calls made by police, and the responsibilities officers have to the people that they arrest.
J. Amy Dillard, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, said each trial has revealed more about what can be considered reasonable police conduct.
"These have always been hard cases to prove," she said. "And with every hung jury and acquittal, they get harder."
But Doug Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland, said prosectors have enough evidence to move forward, and that having trials ensures that police are subject to public scrutiny.
"Transparency becomes useful to informing the public as to the reasons why an outcome resulted," he said. "It's part of the democratic and constitutional process."
The next officer scheduled to go on trial is Lt. Brian Rice, the most senior officer charged and the one who initiated the encounter with Gray.
Colbert said the case against him could reveal new details about what happened on the morning Gray was arrested.
Gray's death sparked days of demonstrations. On the day he was buried, the city descended into riots.
Mosby's announcement of charges against the six officers helped to calm the city. But from the start, the cases have faced challenges.
Mosby said state law allowed Gray to carry a knife that officers found on him, and so he should not have been arrested. Police and attorneys for the officers pushed back hard, saying the knife was illegal under city ordinances, so the arrest was legitimate.
The manslaughter charges against four of the officers and the murder charge faced by Goodson relied on an unusual legal theory about the defendants' inaction.
That set a high bar for prosecutors. In Goodson's case, Williams said, they did not manage the leap.
Williams spent much of his time on the bench Thursday proposing alternative times when Gray might have suffered his injury, and expressed doubt about whether an officer who did not have extensive medical training would have noticed that Gray was badly hurt.
That finding was important because the murder and manslaughter charges against Goodson rested on the allegation that he knowingly failed to intervene.
David Jaros, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, said that given Williams' summary of the evidence, it's difficult to see how the judge could conclude that any of the other officers should have known that Gray was hurt.
"This case has revealed the really significant challenges to getting a criminal conviction for these charges," Jaros said. "The same challenges exist for the other defendants. In fact, they may be greater."