Experts: Justice system working more efficiently for officers charged in death of Freddie Gray

The trials in the death of Freddie Gray could resume as soon as February after Judge Barry Williams denied the state's motion to compel Officer William G. Porter to testify in the trials of all five co-defendants.

Porter has already been named a key witness in the trials of Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr. and Sgt. Alicia D. White, whose trials are delayed until at least March, when the Court of Special Appeals will hear arguments on whether Porter, who will be retried in June for crimes including involuntary manslaughter, can be forced to testify against them. Porter's trial ended in a hung jury in December, resulting in a mistrial.

Judge Williams denied Wednesday the prosecution's fresh request to also compel Porter's testimony in the trials of Edward M. Nero, Garrett E. Miller, and Lt. Brian W. Rice, saying it appeared to be a stall tactic to further postpone the trials.

While the defense argued that postponing the trials of Nero, Rice, and Miller would violate their right to a speedy trial, Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow reminded the court that it was, give or take a day, only eight months on from the grand jury indictment of the six officers.

That, he told the court, is "not an extraordinarily long time. It's quite a short time" in the life of such a major case.

According to legal experts, he's absolutely right—usually things take much, much longer. Lawyers following the trials have wide-ranging views on just about every detail of the complex proceedings. But they do seem to agree on this: Things are very different if you're a cop.

The circumstances of these officers' trials have been widely described as "extraordinary," not least because of the remarkable fact that they trials are happening at all.

It is exceedingly rare for the state to prosecute the police—its own investigative arm. Before these six officers were charged in Gray's death, only five Baltimore Police officers have faced criminal charges over the last three decades for "on-duty actions that resulted in death," according to a 2015 story in The Sun.

While Marilyn Mosby was swift in announcing the rare indictment, the officers have had it relatively easy compared to the average defendant, say experts.

The trials of the six officers were, initially at least, scheduled on a tight back-to-back timeline from December to March; pretrial motions were held well ahead of trial dates; the officers were exempted from appearing at certain hearings; the trials were severed, giving each officer an individual trial. The six officers, whose charges range from negligence to second-degree depraved-heart murder, were granted bail and walked free while awaiting trial.

This may all sound routine. But according to Todd Oppenheim, a public defender who is running to be a circuit court judge, for the average defendant, the speed and efficiency of such proceedings just doesn’t happen.

"They're getting this kid gloves treatment because they are officers, and all of a sudden the presumption of innocence is there," he says.

There's no question, he adds, that if tried for murder or manslaughter, as are four of the six officers charged in Gray's death, "our clients would be held without bail, no question."

Oppenheim tells me that most defendants facing murder or manslaughter charges are rarely granted bail at all, and the question of how much is "entirely arbitrary"—left to the presiding judge.

The six officers being tried in Freddie Gray's death were bailed at $250,000-$350,000.

Protesters arrested for more minor charges during the unrest following Gray's death, such as Oppenheim's client Dominick Torrence, have in some cases been bailed for the same amount, or more. More often than not, says Oppenheim, his clients can't afford bail and await their day in court behind bars, often as their trials move through numerous postponements.

More than half of felony cases charged in 2012 weren't resolved until after Maryland's 180-day speedy trial limitation had passed.

Oppenheim describes another client, 'Mr. Y,' who had a minor record and mental health problems when he was granted no bail, and jailed for a year awaiting a murder trial that was several times postponed. The case was dismissed following a revelation that the chief witness was a paranoid schizophrenic.

It's a scenario Oppenheim describes as "typical."

There's nothing strictly wrong with the treatment of the officers in the Freddie Gray trials, says David Jaros, a professor at the at University of Baltimore's law school who focuses on defendants' rights—but it shouldn't be the exception to the rule.

"The wheels of justice are moving a little more slowly going to the Court of Appeals, but in relative terms, some defendants are waiting in jail, presumed innocent. It's moving pretty quickly compared to the experience most people have," he said, pointing out the central irony that this discrepancy in treatment is precisely what has brought to a head the public's fraught relationship with the Baltimore police.

"If this were a gang trial I'm not at all confident the Court of Special Appeals would reach in and stop the trial," he says of delaying Goodson and White's trials. "But I would want them to."

"It's not that we shouldn't treat police officers that way but that we do treat everyone else with that same respect," he added.

It's a sentiment echoed by prominent protester Kwame Rose: "We're seeing the way the justice system can be manipulated to protect the rights of police officers. Those rights aren't protected for regular citizens," says Rose, who, having been in the custody of Baltimore Police several times, describes the experience as "life-threatening."

The Baltimore Police have said they are compounding their efforts in the wake of the uprising to improve community relations with the police. But in a CNN special report on Freddie Gray's death that aired on Tuesday, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis admitted that the task "isn't changing the direction of a jet-ski. It's the Titanic."

As the highest-profile police brutality case playing out in the country right now, the proceedings, and the outcome, will likely serve as a bellwether in determining whether charging officers is an act of political suicide for prosecutors.

But, Jaros says, taking the most aggressive action doesn't mean Mosby's office has the an airtight case.

"In many ways this is a less egregious case than that of Laquan Mcdonald in Chicago, or Eric Garner in Long Island," says Jaros.

"We have prosecutors finally willing to go all out for a conviction, but this is a hard case to prove."

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