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Freddie Gray case: Jury declares mistrial in case against officer Porter

🕐 6 min read

BALTIMORE – Jurors deliberated more than 16 hours over three days but still could not reach a verdict in the trial of the first officer to face prosecution in Freddie Gray’s death, forcing an already-weary Baltimore to continue waiting for any resolution in a case that has strained this city for months.

On Wednesday afternoon, Judge Barry G. Williams declared a mistrial.

“You clearly have been diligent,” he told jurors. “You are a hung jury.”

Perhaps no outcome could have better represented the mood here, where residents are deeply divided about what led to and who should be held responsible for Gray’s fatal injury while in police custody. On the day of his funeral in April, violent riots exploded in West Baltimore as the incident became a defining moment in the national movement protesting law enforcement’s treatment of African-Americans.

As news spread outside the courthouse, protesters immediately expressed their dissatisfaction.

“They just declared a mistrial. That means justice has not been found,” Kwame Rose shouted into a bullhorn, adding soon after: “Do not tell us to protest in peace.”

“Indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail,” a crowd of about two dozen chanted.

Moments later, a sheriff’s deputy read a statement that people are free to protest but are not permitted to use bullhorns or assemble in front of the courthouse.

The gatherers continued their chant: “No justice, no peace.”

The jury – made up of what appears to be seven black and five white members – failed to reach unanimity after hearing two weeks of passionate legal arguments and contradictory witness testimony, leaving prosecutors to decide whether to try Officer William G. Porter a second time.

After the judge’s announcement State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby hugged the prosecutors and quickly exited the courtroom, telling reporters with a smile the gag order meant she could say nothing.

How the community will react now is hard to predict. Baltimoreans had long anticipated and, in some cases, dreaded a verdict. Many in Gray’s West Baltimore neighborhood – known for its poverty, violence and steadfast distrust of police – feared that if several or even just one of the six officers being tried were acquitted, more upheaval would inevitably follow.

In a city also contending this year with a record-high murder rate, government leaders have begged residents to stay calm.

The police department has banned officers from taking leave as area schools cancelled field trips, warned students not to participate in civil unrest and told parents in a letter that kids who participate in “any form of violence” would be punished.

Gov. Larry Hogan recently told city leaders that Maryland was “hoping for the best and preparing for the worst,” U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings held a press conference pleading for peace and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who seemed to be anticipating a backlash, issued a statement imploring his officers to defy the public’s dismal expectations of their agency.

“We will serve as peace keepers for those wishing to exercise their right to protest,” Davis wrote. “We will protect homes, businesses, residents and police officers from harm and mayhem.”

Gray, 25, was arrested April 12 after he spotted officers in his neighborhood and ran, triggering a pursuit. After he was dragged to the police van, prosecutors say, his spine was nearly severed when Gray fell in the back of the wagon in which his hands and feet were shackled but he wore no seat belt. It remains unclear precisely how Gray was injured, but medical experts on both sides of the case compared his injury to those sustained when someone dives headfirst into too-shallow water.

Attorneys called more than 20 witnesses, presented about 100 pieces of evidence and made hours of impassioned arguments in their competing efforts to explain Porter’s actions that day.

Prosecutors alleged that Porter, 26, disregarded his duty by not strapping Gray into the van while also failing to get him medical help when he asked for it and, at one point, claimed he couldn’t breathe. When the wagon reached a station, Gray was found unresponsive and died a week later.

“He abused his power. He failed in his responsibility. Hold him responsible,” prosecutor Janice Bledsoe had told jurors in her closing argument, at one point calling the police van in which Gray was injured “his casket on wheels.”

Defense attorneys presented a starkly different version of events, arguing Porter was a conscientious officer who acted reasonably given what he knew at the time. They asserted that Gray showed no obvious signs of injury and did not articulate any specific problems. Despite that, his attorneys said, Porter twice asked if he needed a medic and told colleagues Gray should go to the hospital. Several officers testified that arrestees were rarely, if ever, buckled into police vans.

“You’re making a legal decision – not a moral, not a philosophical – a legal decision,” defense attorney Joseph Murtha had told jurors Monday. “You set aside the sympathies, you set aside the passions, you look at the cold, hard facts that aren’t there in this case.”

The trial – which the defense repeatedly insisted should be relocated because of the immense publicity – was rife with dramatic episodes, beginning at jury selection when demonstrators’ chants filtered into the marbled courtroom: “We won’t stop until killer cops are in cell blocks.”

Later, after prosecutors played shaky cell phone video of Gray’s arrest, his mother, Gloria Darden, began to sob, prompting Williams to pause the proceedings. Wrapped in the arms of another woman, she was escorted outside.

But no moment was more anticipated than when Porter took the stand, calmly addressing the jury for four hours in a way that at times felt rehearsed.

Porter described growing up in the same neighborhood as Gray, someone the officer said he had a “mutual respect” for but who he knew feigned injury to avoid arrest.

“It was a very traumatic thing for me,” he said of Gray’s death. “Any loss of life, I’m sorry to see that.”

His testimony intensified during cross examination when Prosecutor Michael Schatzow suggested he was involved in a cover-up driven by officers’ unwillingness to “snitch” on each other.

“Is that culture in the Baltimore Police Department?” Schatzow asked.

“Absolutely not,” Porter replied. “I’m offended you would even say something like that.”

Outside the courthouse Wednesday morning, the scene was quiet, as it had been a day earlier when camera crews were posted on every corner and just three protesters displayed signs. One read: “Jail Killer Police.”

Julie MacGregor, 58, held a Gray poster in one hand, and in the other, she gripped a stack of postcards that offered tips on how to handle encounters with the police. As people passed by, she handed them out.

“There is definitely a connection between police brutality and race,” MacGregor said. “It’s systematic, and it’s got to stop.”

Nearby, Arthur B. Johnson Jr., 72, leaned against the courthouse as he held a weather-worn poster of Gray. Johnson said he has stood in the same spot every day since the start of Porter’s trial.

Johnson worried that if Porter and the other officers were acquitted “it will be 1968 all over again,” referring to the destructive riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

“I’m here for some justice,” Johnson said. “We’re not going to get justice, not the kind that should be gotten. We didn’t get it for Rodney King. We didn’t get it in Ferguson. But I want some.”

– – –

Justin Jouvenal, Rachel Weiner, Paul Duggan and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

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