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Baltimore Prosecutors Face Pressure After No Officer Convictions In Freddie Gray Case

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Another Baltimore police officer goes on trial next week, charged in connection with the death of a young black man - Freddie Gray. Freddie Gray's death a year ago sparked protests that turned violent. The high-profile trials in the case became a flashpoint in the national debate over race and policing and holding officers accountable. But so far, there have been four trials and no convictions. NPR's Jennifer Ludden joins us in our studios. Jennifer, thanks for being with us.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: The charges against these six police officers, they've been contentious from the beginning. Remind us why.

LUDDEN: Let's go back last year, Scott, to early May. The whole nation, you'll recall, was really tense. We had seen a series of black men die at the hands of police, and no officer had been prosecuted. Freddie Gray's funeral touches off violence. The National Guard is brought in. There's a curfew in Baltimore. State's attorney Marilyn Mosby calls a news conference outside, across from city hall. It's just three weeks since Gray's arrest, less than two weeks since he had died, and then Mosby said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

MARILYN MOSBY: The findings of our comprehensive, thorough and independent investigation, coupled with the medical examiner's determination that Mr. Gray's death was a homicide, which we received today, has led us to believe that we have probable cause to file criminal charges.

(CHEERING)

LUDDEN: So cheers there from people who had gathered around who were ecstatic at this news. But immediately, you had critics accusing Mosby of rushing to judgment. You know, some suggested she brought the charges just to quell these protests. And then as information on the case came out, a lot of legal analysts from the very beginning said the state has the burden here of proving their case. And a lot of analysts have told me from the beginning they did not see evidence of criminal action.

SIMON: But of course, Freddie Gray somehow got severely injured in that encounter with the police. Prosecutors say his neck was - neck was broken. His spine was crushed in the back of a police van. He died a week later. A lot of people certainly are wondering why nobody - nobody gets convicted for that.

LUDDEN: Absolutely, and, you know, if we had seen all jury trials, it is possible this could have done differently. The first one was a jury trial. They could not agree. It was a hung jury. The next three were bench trials. Judge Barry Williams decided the cases. And he has given a very detailed explanation of why he acquitted three officers in a row. And this is a judge, by the way, who spent the better part of a decade with the federal government going around the country and prosecuting police misconduct.

First, there's no evidence of a rough ride. There's video of the van's journey. You just don't see, you know, rough driving there. There's no camera inside the van. We still don't know exactly how or when Gray was injured. And there is a policy - they're supposed to seat belt detainees, but the officers have discretion. And if you use that discretion wrongly, it's actually not criminal. It's a matter for internal discipline.

In his latest verdict, Judge Williams said that prosecutors just want him to, you know, assume or presume too many things. And he said, quote, "the court's imaginings do not serve as a substitute for evidence." So that kind of comment has led a number of legal analysts to say, look, it's really time to just drop the remaining charges. Here's Warren Brown - he's a criminal defense attorney in Baltimore - talking about the judge's verdict.

WARREN BROWN: It's very clear that he is saying over and over and over again that the state has come up woefully short in all of these cases. And so to continue on when it's clear that you're not going to win, yeah, then it does become unethical to forge ahead.

SIMON: But any sign that prosecutors will drop those charges?

LUDDEN: No, there's not. And I should say that some say this is good for the city, that even if you don't get convictions, just going through the process, having these issues play out in public is a good thing. More cynically, some also point out that a number of the officers have filed defamation suits against State Attorney Mosby. And some legal analysts say, you know, if she dropped the charges now, it would look like she was admitting - that she's admitting that she has mishandled this case.

SIMON: Where does all this leave relations between the police and the community in Baltimore?

LUDDEN: I spoke with Jim Pasco. He heads the National Fraternal Order of Police. He feels that these trials have really made relations worse than before. He faults Mosby for over-charging the officers. And, remember, one faced counts of second-degree murder. Others have been accused of assault and manslaughter.

JIM PASCO: She raised the expectations of those who rush to the judgment that the officers had acted improperly. And they expected not only trials but convictions. So now the community is left with the feeling that they were somehow cheat, and then the officers were clearly cheat.

LUDDEN: And these officers have been suspended for a year now, some of them without pay. Now, I will say that many in Freddie Gray's neighborhood did not expect convictions. There is a widespread skepticism of the criminal justice system. But I don't think that these trials have, you know, made that much better.

SIMON: NPR's Jennifer Ludden, thanks so much.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.