NEW YORK (Reuters) - A mistrial on Wednesday in the case of the first of six Baltimore police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray shows the risk the city prosecutor took in moving aggressively to bring criminal charges, legal experts said.
Gray’s April death of injuries sustained while in police custody came at a time of high racial tensions in the United States following police killings of other black men in cities including New York and Ferguson, Missouri, and sparked rioting and arson in the majority black city of 620,000 people.
The trial of Officer William Porter had been intended to lay the groundwork for the prosecutions of other officers involved in Gray’s death, plans that have been thrown into disarray by the inability of the jury to reach a verdict.
The mistrial could renew criticism that the state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, overreached in bringing manslaughter and other serious charges against the officers, only a day after police completed their investigation into the death.
“She didn’t go where the evidence led her,” said Steven Levin, a former federal prosecutor and now a defence lawyer in Baltimore. “She went where constituents wanted her to go.”
Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams has imposed a gag order on all attorneys involved in the case and Mosby’s office said it would have no comment on the mistrial.
Legal experts who followed the trial closely said the charges against Porter, which included involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault and reckless endangerment, made for a tough case to prove.
Prosecutors argued that Porter, who is also black, failed to buckle Gray’s seatbelt and then ignored his pleas for medical attention.
Porter testified he thought Gray was faking and that he was unaware the prisoner was in mortal danger until they arrived at the police station.
“This was an incredibly difficult legal case,” said David Jaros, a law professor at the University of Baltimore. “It’s hard to convict someone based on an omission under any circumstances.”
The case’s complexity stands in contrast to other recent instances in which officers have been criminally charged for killing suspects, including in Chicago where an officer was charged with murder for shooting a black teenager 16 times in an incident caught on video.
Andy Levy, a litigator in Baltimore, said Porter’s testimony, which he said appeared credible, undermined prosecutors’ effort to paint him as a criminal.
“It was difficult to make a villain out of Officer Porter,” he said. “This was not a police officer with a history of disciplinary infractions.”
Mosby’s decision in some sense serves as a counterpoint to the criticism levelled at authorities in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York for failing to secure indictments for officers involved in the killing of unarmed black men, observers said.
“Not all prosecutors would have brought these charges,” Levy said. “It was a ballsy move on her part.”
It is unclear whether Porter will be retried before the other five trials. If Porter had been convicted, the state planned to call him as a witness against Caesar Goodson, the van driver, whom Porter claimed to have told about Gray’s request for medical aid.
But legal experts said it was not clear prosecutors could have compelled Porter to testify, given that he might expose himself to potential federal civil charges. The U.S. Department of Justice has said it is investigating Gray’s death.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the mistrial, Levy said, was the judge’s decision to dismiss the jurors after only 16 hours rather than force them to continue.
“Given the resources and the high visibility of the case, it seemed a little precipitous,” Levy said.
Earlier this year in the high-profile New York trial of Pedro Hernandez, accused of killing 6-year-old Etan Patz in New York in 1979, the trial judge repeatedly instructed jurors to continue talking for more than a week after they first said they were deadlocked.
He finally declared a mistrial after 18 days of deliberations.
Additional reporting by Ian Simpson and Donna Owens in Baltimore; Editing by Scott Malone and Lisa Shumaker