Justice Department won't bring charges against Baltimore police officers in Freddie Gray case

The U.S. Justice Department will not bring charges against Baltimore police officers in connection with the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from injuries sustained in police custody in 2015.

The agency said Tuesday that after “an extensive review of this tragic event, conducted by career prosecutors and investigators,” it had concluded that “the evidence is insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that the officers involved in Gray’s arrest “willfully violated” his civil rights.

“Accordingly, the investigation into this incident has been closed without prosecution,” the agency said.

The decision means no officers will be held criminally responsible for Gray’s death. The state previously filed local criminal charges against six officers in the case, but failed to secure a single conviction.

Former Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch announced that the Justice Department was conducting a criminal civil rights investigation into Gray’s death on April 27, 2015, the same day as Gray’s funeral and the eruption of rioting, looting and arson in Baltimore.

Lynch, who served under President Obama, said at the time that the department would “continue our careful and deliberate examination of the facts in the coming days and weeks” to determine whether any officers should be charged with violating Gray’s civil rights.

Now, nearly two-and-a-half years later and under the Trump administration, Justice Department investigators have concluded that no charges are warranted.

The Justice Department said that “the evidence gathered during this investigation is insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers violated Gray’s 4th Amendment rights against false arrest and unreasonable force, or his 14th Amendment right to be free from excessive force and deliberate indifference.”

The department said the evidence did not show a “rough ride” — a theory of state prosecutors — and did not prove that officers were aware that their failure to secure Gray with a seat belt in the back of a police transport van put him in danger, or that he was injured and needed immediate medical care.

The department announced its decision Tuesday evening, several hours after the Baltimore Sun reported the decision based on sources familiar with the investigation.

Officials at the FBI and the Maryland U.S. attorney’s office referred questions to the Justice Department.

William H. “Billy” Murphy, the Gray family’s attorney, declined to comment.

Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith declined to comment.

Five officers still face internal discipline hearings in relation to the case.

Michael Davey, an attorney for the local police union, said he had not received any notice of an official decision in the case from the Justice Department as of Tuesday afternoon, but “if the sources are correct, we're obviously pleased.”

“We only wish that the Baltimore city state’s attorney’s office would have done just as thorough an investigation before they brought their state charges,” Davey said. “If they would have done that, we believe they would have come to the same conclusion as the Department of Justice.”

According to local prosecutors, Gray died after suffering a fatal spinal cord injury in the back of a Baltimore police transport van following his arrest on the morning of April 12, 2015.

Police accused Gray of running unprovoked in a high-crime area in West Baltimore and of being in possession of an illegal knife at the time of his arrest. He was handcuffed and shackled in the transport van, but not restrained by a seat belt.

Gray’s death a week later sparked widespread protests against police brutality in Baltimore. Clashes between police and civilians spiraled out of control on the day of his funeral, erupting into rioting that caused millions of dollars in damages. The city was put under a weeklong nightly curfew.

Days after the rioting, Baltimore State’s Atty. Marilyn J. Mosby filed local criminal charges against six police officers, ranging from misconduct in office and reckless endangerment to manslaughter and second-degree depraved heart murder.

All of the officers pleaded not guilty and none was convicted.

Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., Lt. Brian Rice and Officer Edward Nero were acquitted in bench trials before Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams. Mosby subsequently dropped the charges against Sgt. Alicia White, Officer Garrett Miller and Officer William Porter, citing the unlikely chance of a conviction with Williams scheduled to preside over their trials as well.

Porter had previously had a jury trial, which resulted in a hung jury and mistrial.

The Justice Department’s decision not to bring charges in the case was anticipated by many legal observers, particularly given Williams’ rulings at the state level, as federal civil rights cases have a higher standard for securing convictions.

To secure convictions in such cases, federal prosecutors must establish that an officer willfully violated a person's civil rights, which experts said is not an easy task.

When Mosby dropped the state charges against the remaining officers in July 2016, Justice Department leaders in the Obama administration issued a statement saying the agency had been "monitoring the state's investigation and trials" along with the FBI and the Maryland U.S. attorney’s office. The statement said the Justice Department would continue its “independent review of this matter, assess all available materials and determine what actions are appropriate, given the strict burdens and requirements imposed by applicable federal civil rights laws.”

President Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have both made comments skeptical of police reforms espoused by the Obama administration, making some experts even more confident that no charges would be filed in the Gray case.

Rector writes for the Baltimore Sun.

krector@baltsun.com

Twitter: twitter.com/rectorsun

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