BALTIMORE (AP) – The first of six officers charged in a police custody death that sparked riots in Baltimore went on trial Wednesday as a prosecutor focused on what the patrolman failed to do: Push a button to call for a medic who might have saved Freddie Gray’s life.
Attorneys for Officer William Porter disputed this and other claims made in the trial’s opening statements, questioning how and when Gray’s neck was broken in the back of a police van, and whether the young man was really in need of medical attention when he first asked for it.
“You may hope finding him guilty will quell unrest,” but Porter committed no crime, defense attorney Gary Proctor told jurors.
“Let’s show Baltimore the whole damn system isn’t guilty as hell,” Proctor said, paraphrasing a chant used by protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Porter wasn’t initially involved in Gray’s arrest, but he was there at five of the six stops the van made that turned a short trip into a 45-minute ride to the local police station.
Prosecutors said the young man told Porter he could not breathe and could not move from the floor of the van, where he had been placed head-first, in plastic handcuffs and leg shackles.
Gray’s neck was broken between the second and fourth stops, which made his breathing increasingly difficult, said the prosecutor. He suggested the fatal injury could have happened when the brakes engaged, since Gray could not have used his hands or feet to brace himself.
“If it slams on its brakes, he’s going to move at the speed it was going before it slams on its brakes,” prosecutor Michael Schatzow said. “He’s completely at the mercy of whatever happens.”
Rather than call a medic, Porter picked Gray up from the floor and placed him upright but unsecured on the bench, despite Baltimore Police Department policy requiring a seatbelt restraint, he said.
Pointing to a poster-sized photo of the van with one of its rear doors open, Schatzow said: “The city paid extra to get those seat belts in that van, any one of which would have saved Mr. Gray’s life.”
Then, rather than take him directly to the station or a hospital, police made a fifth stop to pick up another suspect. By then, Gray was fatally injured, prosecutors said.
The defense attorney disputed the timeline, arguing that Gray was found slumped over on his knees by the fifth stop, so he could not have been already injured. “It’s impossible. His legs wouldn’t have worked,” Proctor said.
Porter also suspected Gray had a case of “jail-itis” – police slang for feigning an injury to avoid going to jail, his attorney suggested.
Porter “knew he didn’t go quietly” during earlier arrests, so when Gray became more passive while still requesting a medic during van stops 4 and 5, the officer assumed he had simply exhausted himself rocking the vehicle early in the ride, Proctor said.
As for pushing the “talk” button on his shoulder radio to summon a medic, Porter’s experience told him that could mean spending hours with Gray in an emergency room awaiting a doctor’s note clearing him to go to jail, the defense attorney said.
Gray, 25, was picked up after running from police who were patrolling his neighborhood. A neighbor recorded a video of him being dragged into the van. He was unresponsive on arrival at the station, and was taken to a hospital where he died a week later, on April 19.
Porter is charged with manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment, carrying maximum terms of about 25 years in prison. He is expected to take the stand in his own defense.
The jury of eight women and four men was seated on the third day of a brisk selection process, given defense assertions that it would be impossible to seat an impartial panel in a city so convulsed by the case.
Gray’s death triggered protests and rioting in Baltimore, fueling the Black Lives Matter movement nationwide. The troubles forced Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to fire her reform-minded police chief and abandon her re-election campaign. Homicides skyrocketed at a rate unseen in decades.
Many fear that an acquittal could prompt more protests and unrest, and that a conviction could send shock waves through the city’s troubled police department.
The other officers charged will be tried separately beginning in January and lasting through the spring.
No reputations hinge on the trial’s outcome as much as that of state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby and her husband, Nick Mosby, a councilman for Baltimore’s west side who announced his mayoral candidacy shortly after Rawlings-Blake pulled out.
Marilyn Mosby, who took office in January, spoke so forcefully when she announced the charges against the officers in May that defense attorneys argued she should recuse herself for bias. She listened Wednesday in the courtroom. Gray’s mother, stepfather and other family members were in the courtroom as well. Porter also had family present.
The state’s first witness, Officer Alice Carson-Johnson, taught Porter at the police academy. She said officers must sometimes “do a little detective work” to understand medical complaints, but she hopes they will have already summoned an ambulance before trying to determine why someone is saying, “I can’t breathe.”