Circus Court: At the Freddie Gray trial, the street is never out of mind

First hearings in Freddie Gray trial show a city balancing fairness against fear

They were brown raffle tickets, six-digit numbers on each one; the kind you'd buy at a fair to ride the Tilt-a-Whirl. A deputy handed them out to journalists queued outside Courthouse East after checking each name from a list. It was barely 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning, an hour and a half before the show was set to start.

The tickets lent a carnival atmosphere to the otherwise-dour spectacle of a motions hearing in the criminal trial against six Baltimore City police officers accused of complicity in the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Sandtown-Winchester man who they arrested on April 12. Gray lapsed into a coma with a broken neck, and died on April 19, the apparent victim of a "rough ride" in a police transport van.

Gray's death touched off a week of protest in late April as activists and residents made common cause against police brutality. And then there was Monday, April 27, a day of rioting and violence. The national media descended on Baltimore for the fiery spectacle that seemed to confirm the worst fears about the national movement for police reform. The deaths of dozens of unarmed African-American men at the hands of police across the nation were one thing, but this was dozens of building fires, and many more vehicle fires, all in one night.

Baltimore has been peaceful since. A knot of activists took up the corner next to the courthouse, a sideshow of sorts, steps away from the reporters from CNN, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and dozens of other national outlets holding their tickets.

But in a way, that sideshow is central. And managing the media's portrayal of those events is a central goal of city officials.

By day's end Judge Barry Glenn Williams had ruled: The case against William Porter, Alicia White, Brian Rice, Garrett Miller, Edward Nero, and Caesar Goodson would go on, but each defendant would receive a separate trial. "This makes the state's job a lot harder," Ivan Bates, one of the lawyers for Sgt. Alicia White, said immediately after the ruling. "This is a humongous win for us."

The arguably more important question, to be settled on Thursday, Sept. 10, is whether these trials will occur in Baltimore Circuit Court, or in some other jurisdiction.

"It's a very tough motion to succeed," said Doug Colbert, civil rights lawyer from the UMD School of Law, standing outside the court before the start. "But police are like no other defendants."

At the bottom of the Freddie Gray case is the question of whether the prosecution's case is strong enough to get a conviction of any of the officers—and what will happen if it isn't. Police have treated minor protests as threats, and some protesters have given the impression that anything less than a conviction would be a betrayal of the movement, regardless of what the facts presented at trial may show. There is a palpable sense in Baltimore that an acquittal, or even a change of venue, might lead to more rioting, and the authorities are taking steps to prevent what they seem to believe is highly likely, if not inevitable.

That concern animated Goodson's defense lawyer, Andrew Graham, as he made in his initial argument seeking Mosby's recusal. The state's attorney "adopted the cry . . . 'no justice, no peace,' that is, if they want peace in Baltimore, they have to convict the defendants," he said. Goodson, who drove the van, faces the harshest charge of the six officers: second-degree depraved-heart murder.

"The alternative is that they just wanted peace," Judge Williams responded.

"But an acquittal would not do it," Graham shot back. Mosby said, in her May 1 press conference, that "the officers had to be held accountable. In other words, they have to be convicted. She was essentially urging everyone, including potential jurors, to exact vengeance on these six officers by convicting them."

The judge didn't buy this. But neither did he endorse the position Mosby's team took, which is that under the rules governing a prosecutor's behavior, calming a city prone to riot is a legitimate law-enforcement purpose.

In short, both sides in the Freddie Gray case believe that the city's mood—and its array of loosely organized protest groups—must be carefully managed, lest there be more fires.

The blue line painted on the sidewalk to delineate the no-smoking zone was pressed into service as a "no photography" zone, according to the edict from a deputy with a bullhorn.

"Have your ticket out," the reporters were told.

Once inside the dark courtroom, FOP President Gene Ryan took a seat in the middle section. "I've always said let the process go where it goes," he told a lawyer.

The lawyers from each side greeted each other with smiles and handshakes. They all know and respect each other from long experience, it seems—in contrast from what one might think reading their briefs accusing each other of moral outrages and legal calumny.

Cellphones were ordered off. Not vibrate, "off." Ryan was still checking his own device. "Off? They want it off?" he asked one of the lawyers filling in the seats ahead of the brass rails. The woman shrugged.

The courtroom rule is standard, but not always enforced. Cable news people later complained to the Sun's David Zurawik about the "radio silence," which apparently frustrated the 24-hour news channel's plans to air each drip of news as it happened.

Judge Williams was by turns ascerbic and funny, and he addressed the assembled lawyers with a formality that bordered on theatrical. He knows it's a show, a performance, and he wants that toned down. He admonished the lawyers to craft their future legal briefs so as to "assist the court in understanding the legal issues—not to get the best media sound bites."

Outside the courtroom a small group of protesters held signs and chanted, before one Pastor Westley West led the group on a sprint toward Pratt Street, where some tried to lock arms to block the road. The protest was almost immediately declared illegal; the police would no longer tolerate streets being blocked by protesters. Kwame Rose (aka Darius Rosebrough), an activist famous for telling off Geraldo Rivera on the street last spring, ended up in police custody, charged with assaulting an officer, disorderly conduct, and making a false statement.

The cops came on strong. Several peaceful protesters said police hit them with clubs on or around Pratt Street. Many police were in riot gear. The mayor and the police chief held a press conference to mislead the national press away from that fact.

"It is totally acceptable to have vibrant and energized protest but also to be respectful and to stay within the bounds of the law, and that's what we saw today," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. "Today's actions were peaceful, respectful, and an example of democracy in action."

The stark difference between the rhetoric and the reality is, arguably, what has driven the movement for police reform. Media coverage of the protest, and the prosecution's case against these six officers, has created a feedback loop that leads to more protest, more coverage of allegations of police brutality, and, arguably, more prejudice against the defendants.

"It's not the fact of publicity itself, it's that he publicity has been so one sided that the community concludes a verdict before they even hear the evidence," Colbert said. "And everyone should want the verdict to be based on the evidence." 

Additional reporting contributed by Brandon Soderberg and Brandon Weigel

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