In trial for first officer accused in Freddie Gray's death, defense highlights officer's record, inexperience

The first of the Baltimore police officers accused in Freddie Gray's death sat erect at the defense table as his lawyer gave a glowing description of his character on this first day of the trial.

Defense attorney Gary Proctor, in opening arguments, did his best to paint a picture of Officer William Porter as a newbie cop who had been on the force only two years and picked up some basics at the police academy but was essentially left to "learn by doing" while on the job.

"Every cop that comes in here will tell you he learned a small amount at the academy," Proctor said. "They learn by trial and error and to convict this man would be an error." Yes, Officer Porter did not put a seat belt on Freddie Gray in the van, he told the jury, "but you can't hold him accountable when no one did it."

Officer Porter has been charged with second-degree assault and manslaughter after Freddie Gray died in police custody in April and his defense attorney took a predictable path as he mapped out the scenario, painting Porter as a well-intentioned fellow and Gray as a crazy guy well known to local cops.

It's not a surprising strategy but it's a risky one—and it could backfire, given the jury's familiarity with the case. This jury of five African-American women, three African-American men, three white women, and one white man all acknowledged knowing something about Freddie Gray's death and the ensuing protests in Baltimore. (Indeed, nearly all prospective jurors were familiar with it.) Presumably, then, they know that six officers have been accused of giving Gray a "rough ride" in the police van after arresting him and allegedly ignoring his repeated cries for help.

Proctor began opening arguments by approaching the jury in a conversational manner, pointing out that Officer Porter lived in Baltimore, was involved in the Police Athletic League as a youth, and "wanted to join the military" but couldn't because he was color blind. He was the kind of cop who "never wrote a ticket for open containers," but "always wrote tickets for loitering." He did this out of concern because "bad things" happen when people hang out on street corners. Officer Porter had a good record as a cop, had never fired a gun during his two years on the force, and had a slim file of three reprimands, little things, such as not showing up to traffic court once, Proctor said.

Strangely, as a further testament to Porter's goodwill and friendly community relations, the defense attorney said that Porter recognized Freddie Gray's friend, Brandon Ross, standing by as Gray was arrested. The officer clearly knew Ross by name, he said. Ross was filming some of Gray's arrest on his cellphone and Officer Porter told him "Brandon, go to the news with that," said Proctor. "He tells him to 'take it further if you think there's an issue.'"

As for Gray, Proctor quickly alluded to his run-ins with the law, shoe-horning them in wherever he could and doing his best to create a foil for his client. "He knew Mr. Gray from prior incidences," Proctor said at one point. Officer Porter had never arrested Gray himself but he "knew there was always a big scene whenever they tried to arrest [Gray]."

He went on: "Just a few weeks before Freddie Gray tried to kick the window out of a cop car," and Officer Porter was there and saw the "histrionics."

On April 12, the day of Gray's arrest, Porter heard Gray yelling "I can't breathe," Proctor acknowledged, but told the court to keep in mind that "the first person Officer Porter arrested faked a seizure to get out of jail."

Cops even have a name for this, Proctor said: It's called "jail-itis." He defined it as "feigning injury to get out of going to jail for a day." Proctor also suggested that the reason no one wanted to take Gray to the emergency room was because they would sit there all day—and be one cop down because a police officer would be required to stay there with Gray.

In describing the sequence of events on April 12, when police made multiple stops with Gray in the van, Proctor pointed out that Officer Porter saw the van "shaking back and forth" and "oscillating" several times. Gray weighed 132 pounds. "Think of the energy it must have taken a 132-pound guy to shake the wagon," Proctor said, suggesting he could not have possibly been injured. "Mr. Gray does not say he needs medical attention," Proctor said, describing a now quieter Gray as someone suffering from an "adrenaline dump"—like an athlete who over-exerts himself in a game and later starts to feel his pain. But "he's not wincing in pain," Proctor said. "He's not saying 'Ow.'"

Proctor pointed out that a fellow passenger in the van with Gray said, "He's trying to knock himself out. He's a crazy man."

At one point, when they checked on prisoners in the back of the van, Porter even assisted Gray, his attorney said: "He helped Mr. Gray up because that’s the kind of cop he is."

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