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Faces of Baltimore

30 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

First trial in death of Freddie Gray begins in a city that is still on edge.

The first of six consecutive trials of officers accused in the killing of Freddie Gray began this morning in Baltimore, a city that remains on edge seven months after protests and riots gripped it in the wake of the 25-year-old’s death in police custody.

“I still hear the young man crying, screaming at certain points,” said Perry, standing on his porch in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of West Baltimore, across the street from the court in Gilmor Homes where Freddie Gray was arrested. Perry, who was wearing dark glasses and holding a cane in one hand as he smoked a cigarette in the sun while a group of young men stood on the corner joking, remembered that morning all too well. Williams on Monday presided over jury selection in the trial of Officer William Porter, one of six Baltimore officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death, and offered both a potential endpoint and a glimpse into the process. He was still asleep when the cries of the 25-year-old Gray awoke him. “I heard him screaming: ‘Get off my back, you’re hurting my neck, you’re hurting my neck.

Williams first asked the group of more than 70 whether they had heard about the Freddie Gray case, the curfew related to the unrest that followed and the $6.4 million civil settlement Baltimore reached with Gray’s family. I guess they handcuffed him and they brought him up to that point over there where the mural is and threw him down on the ground and two police cars pulled up right here in front of my house.” Perry is blind and couldn’t see what was happening to Gray, but he woke his wife to tell her that the police were beating someone outside.

About 80 prospective jurors remained in the courtroom as Williams began interviewing members who raised their hands to indicate potential conflicts — based upon beliefs, relationships or encounters as questioned. The judge then turned his attention to more nuanced matters, such as whether the prospective jurors knew witnesses in the case, or whether their personal views and experiences might preclude them from serving.

What happened next – and during the 45 minutes it took the officers to get Gray to the western district police station, only a few blocks away – will be the crux of the six individual trials of the officers involved in Gray’s arrest that day, which led to his death a week later. Porter’s lawyers have repeatedly asked to have the trial moved out of the city, most recently at a final round of motion hearings last week based on a new study showing that residents of Baltimore who make up the jury pool have more negative views of police than those in the surrounding counties. “Because there’s a study, I should just tell the people of Baltimore they can’t be on a jury?” asked judge Barry Williams. “Denied,” he added as he walked away from the bench.

Though a majority of Baltimore’s police officers don’t live in the city, Porter, who will be tried first for manslaughter and other charges, grew up near Gray in West Baltimore. According to official statements provided to the Baltimore Sun, Porter told investigators that Gray asked him for help that morning. “Help me, help me up,” Gray said. At this point, according to Porter’s statements, he told Cesare Goodson, the van’s driver, that central booking would not take Gray because he was injured. The uprising that began after video of Gray’s altercation with police was released made the Sandtown neighborhood the center of the world’s attention. Within a few days, Gray’s name had become a hashtag and the 25-year-old had become a symbol and a part of the nation’s larger discussion of police brutality against unarmed black men.

On Saturday 25 April, a massive march from the Sandtown-Winchester area to city hall ended in a tense standoff between police, now wearing riot gear, and protesters. Seven stood when asked if they would give more or less weight to the testimony of police officers, 12 reported having connections with law enforcement, and 29 jurors said they couldn’t possibly serve on the jury.

An additional 38 said they were victims of crime, had been investigated or previously incarcerated and 26 said they had strong feelings about the charges Porter faced, including manslaughter and police misconduct. That morning, Baltimore police issued a statement about a “credible threat” that gangs were coming together to “take out” police and warned of rumors of an anarchic “purge” of high school students. Then someone decided – neither the Fraternal Order of Police nor independent reports have been able to identify who – that schools should be released early and all public transportation shut down at Mondawmin Mall, a local transportation hub. The other possible witnesses included Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, other officers charged, some of the defense attorneys representing those officers, members of the media and medical examiners.

Within the next couple of hours, the chaos moved down to the corners of Pennsylvania and North Avenues, where police cars and the CVS drugstore, which was first looted, were set on fire. Porter’s attorneys will also likely rebut the medical examiner’s report that classified Gray’s death as a homicide, saying coroners relied too much on information from prosecutors to reach their conclusions.

The governor called a state of emergency, the mayor announced curfews, and as the sun came up the next morning, transport vehicles carrying hundreds of national guardsmen rolled up Interstate 83 into the city. In many ways, Baltimore police and protesters had been prepared for this uprising by the massive protests that shut down the city last November after a Missouri prosecutor decided not to indict officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown. Gray — who had asked for his inhaler and said he could not breathe while being detained — was loaded in the back of a police van for transport to central booking, prosecutors allege.

And Mosby, one of the youngest prosecutors in the country, became a national figure – hated by many in the law enforcement community and held up as a hero by protesters. The homicide rate has reached a record high – with more than 300 murders by the end of November, and near-record-low clearance rates, in the mid-30% range. At the beginning of Porter’s trial, Oppenheim will be paying particularly close attention to jury selection on a case that has been so widely covered. “The ultimate question is: ‘Does their knowledge present a bias?’ I think there’s plenty of people who know what happened and still can make an informed decision on whether the officers are guilty or not guilty based on the evidence presented at trial. Several blocks later, Goodson called dispatch for help in checking on Gray, which is when Porter arrived on the scene, according to charging documents. Hopefully judge Williams will be able to to sift through that and determine whether someone’s past experiences really present a bias.” “I want to see some of them charged the way we are charged,” he said. “They out here walking free and if you’re charged with murder, you don’t get a bond.

That’s ridiculous.” But whatever happens in these individual cases, Perry recognizes the limits of long-term change, so long as conditions remain the same in his community. “There’s no relief in sight. Eventually, everybody in Baltimore city will have a criminal record because they can’t find a job, and if they’re on this corner, sooner or later they’re going to get picked up and accused of something that they may not even have been anywhere near.” Porter, who has been on the force since 2012, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment.

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