BALTIMORE (AP) — A jury will be seated Wednesday for the trial of Officer William Porter (pictured) the first of six Baltimore police officers to stand trial in the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of a spinal injury he suffered in custody.
The panel will be chosen from some of the 150 prospective jurors questioned Monday and Tuesday in Baltimore Circuit Court.
SEATING A JURY
The jury of 12 people, plus several alternates, will be seated Wednesday, possibly followed by opening statements, court spokeswoman Terri Charles said.
They’ll hear the case in a building known as Courthouse East, across the street from the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse where preliminary jury screening took place.
Judge Barry Williams has ordered extraordinary measures to shield the identities of prospective jurors. Their names have not been publicly released, and much of the preliminary screening, including dismissal notifications, was done out of public view.
A verdict is likely to set the tone for the city. If Officer William Porter is acquitted, there could be protests and possibly more unrest. A conviction could send shock waves through the city’s troubled police department.
THE DEFENDANT AND THE CHARGES
Officer William Porter, 26, was born and raised in Baltimore. He had been on the force for three years when he was charged in Freddie Gray’s death last spring. Porter faces charges of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. Prosecutors say he asked Gray, who had been placed in the back of a police transport van with handcuffs and leg shackles, if he needed a medic. But when Gray responded that he couldn’t breathe, Porter did not call for aid and instead simply picked Gray up off the floor of the van and placed him on a bench, prosecutors say.
Prosecutors also say Porter was negligent for failing to buckle Gray into a seatbelt. Porter told investigators that he was familiar with Gray and thought he was faking his injury. “It’s always a big scene whenever you attempted to arrest Freddie Gray,” Porter told investigators, according to a recent court filing.
He faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted of the three most serious charges. Punishment for misconduct in office is left to the judge’s discretion.
Freddie Gray died on April 19, a week after he was critically injured in the back of a police transport van. On April 12, Gray was arrested outside the Gilmor Homes, a public housing complex in West Baltimore, after making eye contact with a Baltimore police officer on bike patrol and running from the officer.
Gray had a knife that defense attorneys maintain was an illegal switchblade. Prosecutors say it was a legal folding knife and he should have never been arrested.
Gray was handcuffed and put in the back of a police transport van. During a 45-minute ride from the Gilmor Homes to the Western District station house, the van made several stops during which officers, including Porter, checked on Gray but did not render medical aid despite Gray’s repeated requests.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams will preside over the six officers’ trials. He previously ruled to keep the trials in Baltimore, denying a series of defense motions to move them out of town on the grounds that pretrial publicity and the citywide curfew after the riot would make it particularly difficult to empanel a fair and impartial jury.
Williams has called 150 potential jurors in for questioning. He said he expects the trial to wrap up no later than Dec. 17.
THE COMMISSIONER AND THE POLICE
Commissioner Kevin Davis said in an interview with The Associated Press that the police department is ready to respond to any civil unrest that could crop up as a result of Porter’s trial, but added that arrest is a last resort when it comes to protest.
“Our presence isn’t an enforcement presence, it’s a peace-keeping presence,” Davis said. “If we emerge from a protest making zero arrests that’s a victory, not only for the protesters, but for us.”
“We handled last spring’s unrest more like an art form than a science,” he added. “There’s a science associated with unrest and incident command and planning and logistics and we’re much better there. Part of me is excited to see how we’ll perform in the next few months because I think we’re going to make a lot of people proud about how far we’ve come as a police department in terms of our capacity, as well as our emotional capacity, to handle civil disturbance.”
Davis, who took over for former police chief Anthony Batts in July and was sworn in as permanent commissioner last month, said he expects the results of the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into allegations of excessive force and unwarranted stops sometime early next year. He said he anticipates the report will reveal “shortcomings,” but said he’s already put measures in place, including installing a director of strategic planning, to improve the department.
“I am putting the agency in the best place to comply with the inevitable reforms we have to face head-on,” Davis said, reforms that “swirl around three things: discipline, training and hiring.”
THE CITY AND THE STAKES
The verdict in Officer William Porter’s trial will likely set the tone for the city as well as the rest of the proceedings.
Freddie Gray’s death inspired thousands to take to the streets in protest. The day he was buried, looting and rioting broke out along swaths of East and West Baltimore, causing millions of dollars in property damage and prompting a five-day, citywide curfew.
In the riot’s aftermath, the city’s commissioner Anthony Batts was fired amid harsh criticism from rank-and-file police officers that he and his administration mishandled the unrest. In May the homicide rate began to climb, leading some residents in poor, violent neighborhoods to blame the police for taking a hands-off approach to the crime fight. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced shortly after that she wouldn’t seek re-election.
Since April’s unrest the city’s homicide rate has continued to climb, but the protests have remained peaceful. In October, a group of high school students were arrested after staging a sit-in at City Hall during the swearing-in ceremony for Commissioner Kevin Davis, who took over for Batts.
“Everything is at stake. The future of the city is at stake,” Davis said.