Subtle changes made in the criminal charges against six Baltimore police officers could reflect weaknesses in the hurriedly filed case arising from the death of Freddie Gray, legal experts say.
A grand jury on Thursday presented its indictment against the officers. Though it largely mirrored the original charges filed by State’s Atty. Marilyn Mosby, the revisions renewed complaints that Mosby moved too quickly and overcharged the officers.
The grand jury dropped the controversial “false imprisonment” charges against three of the officers, raising questions about Mosby’s initial assertion that Gray’s arrest had been illegal.
It also added a lesser charge of “reckless endangerment,” a misdemeanor with a lower standard of proof, against all of the officers. The charge was seen by some as a “backup” in case it became too difficult to prove the tougher charges of assault, manslaughter and, for one officer, second-degree murder.
“It seems to me that suggests a lack of confidence in the other charges,” said Steven H. Levin, a former federal prosecutor in Baltimore. “It’s a catchall. Maybe the hope is that if they throw all these charges at the jury, it will convict them of something.”
When she announced the initial charges May 1, Mosby said the arrest of Gray in a poor neighborhood of West Baltimore on April 12 was illegal. A pocket knife found on Gray, she said, was not an illegal switchblade under Maryland law as the officers had asserted.
But she recently backtracked on the knife, which defense lawyers asserted was illegal under Baltimore’s criminal code, if not under state law.
Instead, she suggested in a court pleading Tuesday that there was no probable cause to arrest Gray in the first place. Gray was chased down by two of the charged officers because he had run away from them after making eye contact.
Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an apprehension in a similar case from Chicago. The grand jury, either of its own initiative or under Mosby’s direction, dropped the false-imprisonment charges.
“It was a huge mess for her and also a sideshow,” said David Gray, who teaches criminal law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. “The real issue here is the potential criminal culpability in Mr. Gray’s death.”
The reckless-endangerment charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
Unlike the manslaughter and second-degree murder charges, reckless endangerment does not require a legal showing that any one officer’s conduct led directly to Freddie Gray’s death, said David Gray, who is not related to the victim.
At a news conference Thursday, Mosby said the changes in the charges against the officers were routine.
“As our investigation continued, additional information has been discovered, and as is often the case during an ongoing investigation, charges can and should be revised based upon the evidence,” she said.
The officers are scheduled to be arraigned July 2. Defense lawyers said they planned to file a motion demanding details of the prosecution’s case within 30 days.
The defense lawyers have also said they will file a motion to move the racially charged case out of Baltimore, which is heavily African American. The surrounding counties are more conservative and possibly more favorable to law enforcement.
At the same time, prosecutors are expected to try to bolster their case by getting one or more of the defendants to testify for the prosecution.