After two failed attempts at securing a conviction, the stakes are high for Baltimore City prosecutors as they bring their case against Officer Caesar Goodson, the third of six Baltimore City police officers to stand trial for their alleged role in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray. Opening arguments are expected this morning.
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Gray was alive when he was loaded into the back of a police van in handcuffs and leg shackles in April 2015. He was not wearing a seat belt. Roughly one hour later, Gray was found unresponsive and suffering from a severe spinal injury. The medical examiner ruled that he received the injury while being transported. Goodson was at the wheel.
Gray died several days later, his death sparking days of violent protests, riots, and looting.
Goodson, 46, a 17-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department, faces the gravest of the charges: depraved-heart murder. Goodson also faces three charges of manslaughter, one charge of second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office. The murder charge carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. He has pleaded not guilty and remains free on $350,000 bail.
Prosecutors bear the burden of proving Goodson acted with such wanton and reckless disregard for human life that it amounted to malice. According to Maryland court instructions that are typically given to a jury, the State must prove that Goodson caused the death of Gray, that he created a very high degree of risk to Gray’s life, and that he was conscious of the risk but still acted with extreme disregard. Depraved-heart murder is a type of second-degree murder that doesn’t require an intent to kill.
On Monday, Goodson opted for a bench trial, so Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams will act as judge and jury. Williams also presided in the previous cases of Officers William Porter and Edward Nero.
Porter’s trial ended with a hung jury in December and he will be retried in September. Nero, who opted for a bench trial, was acquitted last month.
Some legal experts are calling this the “make-or-break” case for the state. If they can’t secure a conviction, it could be a devastating blow to Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office.
Prosecutors are likely to hone in on an unexplained stop Goodson made on his way to the police station. Surveillance footage shows Goodson stopping the van, walking to the back, looking in, returning to the front, and getting back behind the wheel.
Prosecutors claim Gray was hurt and in need of assistance but that Goodson chose to ignore him.
"Despite stopping for the purpose of checking on Mr. Gray's condition, at no point did he seek nor did he render any medical assistance for Mr. Gray," Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said in May 2015.
Goodson’s trial will be the first time anyone has heard his side of the story.
“Goodson's case presents a unique challenge for prosecutors in that he was the only one of the six officers who did not give a statement to investigators,” The Baltimore Sun reports. “The trial is expected to feature medical experts giving contrasting opinions over exactly how and when Gray was injured.”
The question of whether Gray received a “rough ride” – when police intentionally bang suspects around while in transport to cause harm and injury as a form of punishment -- will likely come into play.
While it’s true that Goodson, as the driver of the police van, was expected to have the greatest duty of care according to Baltimore's police code of conduct, Williams will have to determine whether Goodson is criminally liable.