“Respect for the rule of law” -- that’s what Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, is calling for come Monday, when a Baltimore Circuit Court judge is expected to announce the verdict in the case of Police Officer Edward Nero, the second of six officers to go on trial for their role in connection with the death of Freddie Gray.
Cummings, a Baltimore native, said he trusts Judge Barry Williams, and that he will be “perfectly satisfied” with the verdict -- “whatever our personal reaction might be.”
“Whatever may be Judge Barry Williams' decision with respect to Officer Nero’s role in the death of Freddie Gray, that verdict will have as much legitimacy as our society and our justice system can provide,” Cummings said during a news conference today. “We will respect the decision.”
The State of Maryland v. Officer Edward Nero
Nero, 30, has pleaded not guilty to four misdemeanor charges stemming from his actions during the initial stop and arrest of Gray, who suffered a catastrophic spinal injury while in police custody. Gray died one week later -- his death sparking days of violent protests in Baltimore.
Because Nero opted for a bench trial, Williams will be deciding his fate rather than a jury. This will be the first verdict in the cases against the police officers charged in Gray's death, as the first trial of Officer William Porter ended in a mistrial in December. Porter is set to be retried in June.
Prosecutors say Nero had no regard for Gray’s safety and was reckless by ignoring policing rules when he failed to place a seatbelt on Gray, who was placed on his stomach in shackles in the back of a police transport vehicle. Cummings today said he would like to see seatbelts in every police van moving forward, acknowledging there are some in the city that still don’t have any.
Baltimore, a City Outraged
Cummings said Williams’ decision to keep the trials in Baltimore was a “major decision” because it gives the citizens of Baltimore a right to engage with the legal system.
“We have to understand that the people of Baltimore and people throughout the nation call for justice,” he said. “This trial and the other trials of Baltimore City police officers that will follow, are our laws response to the death of human being, our neighbor, and our fellow citizen Freddie Gray while in police custody.”
Cummings said he and Williams have known each other for nearly 20 years and said Williams has performed his duty as a judge “wisely” and without “partiality.”
“He has earned a reputation as a very fair and very tough-minded judge, and he runs a very strict court, and that’s the kind of judge you want in a case like this,” Cummings said.
Williams grilled prosecutors during closing arguments Thursday, questioning whether a crime was in fact committed by Nero.
“So, every time there’s an arrest without probable justification -- it is a crime?” Williams asked incredulously. “I’m trying to make sure it was a criminal assault. Touching Freddie Gray is assault?”
“We believe that the search and arrest without justification are assault, your honor,” Deputy State’s Attorney Janice Bledsoe responded. “There’s no question about that.”
Legal experts say the tone of Williams' pointed questions during closing arguments suggest an uphill battle for prosecutors to win their case against Nero.
A Congressman Calls for Peace
“As personal as the verdict will be for families of Freddie Gray and Officer Nero, as emotional, and satisfying or devastating, the future of our community will not be defined at the moment of the verdict but in the days and years that will follow,” Cummings said.
He is urging the citizens of Baltimore to remain peaceful after the verdict is announced.
“We must remain vigilante to our moral code of peace no matter what the verdict,” he said. “We must be just in the throes of anger or in the depths of despair. We must be just, whether we disagree or agree. I remind the citizens of our region and the citizens of the nation, that citizens asked for justice, and this is the justice system working its way through.”
A guilty verdict, Cummings said, would affect not only the community -- but Nero himself.
“He could lose the opportunity to be a police officer and earn a living,” Cummings said. “He could find himself living in prison.”