The city of Baltimore plans to pay Freddie Gray’s family $6.4 million as a settlement for civil claims in his arrest and death — an extraordinary payment in a claim against the police department.
The settlement, which is expected to be approved Wednesday by a spending board controlled by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, is larger than the total of more than 120 other lawsuits brought against the police department for alleged brutality and misconduct since 2011.
Gray, 25, died in April after sustaining a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. In the hours after his funeral, the city erupted into rioting, arson and looting. The National Guard was called in to help restore order, and a citywide curfew was put in place.
Six officers who were part of Gray’s arrest and transport in a police van have been charged with crimes ranging from murder to assault; all have pleaded not guilty. A pretrial motions hearing is scheduled Thursday for a judge to decide whether to move the cases out of Baltimore; defense attorneys say the officers cannot get a fair trial here because of the publicity surrounding the case.
Billy Murphy, the lawyer representing Gray’s family, declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Baltimore State’s Atty. Marilyn J. Mosby also had no comment. The claim was brought by Gray’s estate, including Freddie Carlos Gray Sr. and Gloria Darden, against the city police department.
The settlement is similar to the amount the family of Eric Garner reached with New York City in July. The city agreed to pay $5.9 million to the family of Garner, who died in July 2014 after a police officer used what appeared to be a chokehold to subdue him on a Staten Island sidewalk. That case gained national attention after videos circulated showing Garner — an unarmed black man — repeatedly shouting, “I can’t breathe!”
Baltimore is accepting all civil liability in Gray’s arrest and death, but does not acknowledge any wrongdoing by the police, according to a statement from Rawlings-Blake’s administration.
“The proposed settlement agreement going before the Board of Estimates should not be interpreted as a judgment on the guilt or innocence of the officers facing trial,” the mayor said in a statement. “This settlement is being proposed solely because it is in the best interest of the city, and avoids costly and protracted litigation that would only make it more difficult for our city to heal and potentially cost taxpayers many millions more in damages.”
The mayor’s office declined to answer questions about the settlement, including why it was brought to the spending panel before any lawsuit was filed. Under the proposed settlement, the city would pay $2.8 million during the current fiscal year and $3.6 million in next year, the city said.
The document says the purpose of the settlement “is to bring an important measure of closure to the family, the community, and the city, and to avoid years and years of protracted civil litigation and the potential harm to the community and divisiveness which may likely result.... Importantly, this settlement has nothing whatsoever to do with the criminal proceedings now underway.”
David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor and an expert on police misconduct issues, said the settlement would not affect the six officers’ criminal trials. It’s easier for plaintiffs to prove civil liability than it is for a prosecutor to prove criminal guilt, he noted.
But he cautioned the settlement could hinder the officers’ ability to get a fair trial in Baltimore.
“If potential jurors don’t understand the distinction, and they just think the city is admitting the police officers are at fault, a judge would tell them otherwise in jury instructions,” Harris said. “But a lot of folks might still carry the thought of the civil settlement with them as potential jurors. So I would expect the civil settlement to come up in defense motions for change of venue.”
A multimillion-dollar wrongful death settlement is rare in Baltimore. Only six payouts since 2011 exceeded $200,000 in the more than 120 police brutality-related claims. In all of those payouts, settlements came months or years after legal wrangling in court battles.
For example, the city paid $175,000 in mid-April to the estate of a man who was shot and killed by police. Michael Omar Wudtee, a 38-year-old Randallstown man, died in 2012 after being shot by police. His estate had sought $10 million in his death.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this report.