Jury selection begins in first Freddie Gray case

standing room as Freddie Gray jury selection begins

At 8:15 a.m. the line of news reporters stretches around the corner from the front steps of the Mitchell Courthouse. The overflow will be confined to a "media room" with a 33-inch television. The television is smaller than the one court personnel originally supplied. But that TV broke, the media is told, and so on Sunday came a mad scramble to get a replacement. It is a Sony. The picture is blurry. The sound is OK. 

Outside the ornate room there are protesters with a megaphone. Officials push protesters to a zone set up especially for them. Inside, TV and newspaper reporters chat about the trial ("How long, do you think?" "The prosecution has an uphill battle." "Why would you protest jury selection?") and the state of the media business. 

Today marks the start of the first of six trials in the death of Freddie Gray.

Gray died in April after being arrested in Sandtown-Winchester. He suffered a partially severed spine during the arrest and transport to the Western District police station. Gray's death prompted peaceful protest, then rioting on the day of his funeral. Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and a curfew that lasted until several days after the police were charged criminally on May 1. 

William Porter, a Baltimore police officer, is charged with manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment, and misconduct in office. It is expected that he will, if convicted, be called as a witness against his fellow officers.

Courtroom 400 is a 70-by-50-foot marble-paneled room with a 20-foot coffered ceiling. The judge's bench is also marble. The spectators' benches are dark hardwood. The press is crammed on the left third of the room. Sheriff's deputies warn sternly against any use of electronic devices. 

When the 75 or so potential jurors walk in, the prosecuting attorneys stand and face them. The defense lawyers remain seated, facing away. The jurors take up the remaining two-thirds of the seats. Judge Barry Williams' booming voice says "Good morning," then repeats it when they do not answer back with sufficient gusto. 

"GOOD MORNING," the prospective jurors reply. 

The jury pool looks to be about half white, half African-American. Like all jury pools, it skews just a little older than the city, since young people are prone to blowing off things like jury duty, and things like getting their driver's license or registering to vote. If you have no driver's license and no voter registration card, you will not be placed in the randomly selected pool of people summoned to jury duty. 

Judge Williams instructs them to hold their summonses in front of them and respond to their numbers. He takes a roll, then asks the usual questions. "If you believe you have a response, stand up," he says, then wait for your number to be called and sit down.

The defense does not want this jury pool. It has fought to remove the case to another, whiter jurisdiction. Judge Williams has ruled against the defense. He asks the jurors if anyone present is under age 18, and no one stands. He asks if any are not residents of the city. None stand.

Then the judge reverses a question. Typically, he would ask if any of the potential jurors are familiar with the case. Today he asks if any are not familiar with the story of Freddie Gray's death.

No one stands.

Is anyone not aware that the City of Baltimore agreed to pay a $6.4 million civil settlement to Gray's next of kin? Not aware that there was a curfew imposed?

No one stands.

The judge asks if anyone knows the defendant, who he asks to stand. None of the prospective jurors stand. Then he runs through a dizzying list of police witnesses. Only juror No. 233 stands for this. The juror will stand several times more when the names of prosecuting attorneys are read and defense lawyers. It appears that No. 233 knows a lot of people involved in the criminal justice system.

When the judge asks the jurors if any would give less weight, or more weight, to testimony of a police officer just because he or she is a police officer, seven people stand.

When he asks if any of the prospective jurors, or their immediate families, have been victims of crime, or have been investigated criminally, 37 stand. About half the jury pool.

Number 53 stands to indicate that she has strong feelings regarding race. Ten other potential jurors stand to say they have mental health issues that may preclude their serving on this jury. 

Judge Williams promises the group that this trial will conclude no later than Dec. 17, then asks if any present believe they cannot—not "don't want to, but cannot"—serve on the jury.

Twenty-nine people stand. 

The potential jurors are led in twos and threes into a conference room, where the judge continues questioning in front of the lawyers—and away from the press. The questioning takes two and a half hours. Then the judge announces it is time for lunch, after which the winnowing process will continue. 

Judge Williams expects to get 12 fair and impartial jurors this way before week's end.

"Do not discuss the case with anyone at all," Williams admonishes the potential jurors. "There may come a time when you are able to do that, ladies and gentlemen. But now is not that time."

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