Can the officers charged with Freddie Gray's death get a fair trial in Baltimore?

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On Monday morning, 75 potential jurors at a Baltimore courthouse were asked to answer a loaded question: who was not familiar with the case of Freddie Gray, the 25-year old who died in police custody in April?

Not a single juror raised his or her hand. Everyone in the room knew exactly what case the judge was talking about. Then the judge asked another series of questions: who was not aware of the $6.4 million civil settlement the city of Baltimore paid to Grey's family, the riots, and the citywide curfew that was put in place after his death?

Everyone in the room had heard about the money. And the riots. And the curfews.

The case against former Baltimore Officer William Porter, who faces charges of manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office, and reckless endangerment, poses striking questions about what constitutes a fair trial—and how much of that concept is dependent on where the trial takes place. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.


Early on in the case, defense attorneys for the six officers who were charged for Gray's death filed an 85-page motion stating that a "presumption of prejudice" exists in the city, and that the trials should be moved to another jurisdiction so that the officers could face an impartial jury.

Riots were waged in the city calling for the officers to be charged, lawyers argued in the motion. Police and citizens were injured, millions of dollars of property was destroyed. City government, public schools and the public transportation system were temporarily shut down.

"This case is more than just pretrial media exposure. This case has quite literally affected every single person that resides in Baltimore City and who could be a potential juror," they wrote.


The court denied the motion and ruled that it would allow the trials to take place in Baltimore. In the decision, the judge said it would be premature to move the trial out of the city, and that he was unconvinced the media and community leaders had more influence in the city than anywhere else. Local activists applauded the decision, though the judge didn't rule out moving it if he fails to find a neutral jury.

“There was real genuine concern that if they moved the venue, then Freddie Gray and the community at large would not receive justice in this case," Sharon Black, a local activist, told the local public radio station at the time.


It's unusual for a trial's venue to be moved, experts say, because the burden of proving a trial will not be fair is set purposefully high. A judge has to balance any publicity that might have been received, whether it was slanted for or against the defendant, and determine whether it contributed to an unshakable prejudice for the vast majority of potential jurors. A handful of biased potential jurors isn't enough.

That's not to say it doesn't happen. In their motion, defense lawyers cited the example of a 2007 excessive force case against six Baltimore police officers that was allowed to move to another county after it received considerable media coverage and as demonstrations against the police officers were mounting throughout the city. The other jurisdiction rejected the lawsuit, even while the judge admitted that some of the officers' behavior was illegal.


Other notorious cases, most recently the trial of Dzhokar Tsarnaev for the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, have also taken place in the city where people were emotionally affected by the tragedy that preceded the trial, despite three motions to move the venue. But unlike the Gray case, which drew from a jury pool of about 276,000 wholly within the city of Baltimore (population about 623,000), the Tsarnaev case was federal, and it drew a much larger, more dispersed jury pool, consisting of nine different counties, and a population of around 5 million.

Most Americans agreed that it was the right decision to charge the officers for Gray's death, according to a national Pew Research Center poll conducted shortly after the peak of the city's unrest.


“Everybody is interested in Freddie Gray,” Deray McKesson, a Baltimore native and activist at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement, told the New York Times. “It’s one of the clearest indictments by a prosecutor. I think people are looking at this as a bellwether case: Is it possible to convict the police?”


Outside the court on Monday, protesters gathered to call for a conviction, as they have promised they would do throughout the trials. Several people present in the courtroom during jury selection said that the clamor could be heard from inside the building. As the potential jurors are selected and as they move forward in this case, this is the backdrop to their decision-making process.

"It will require a certain amount of real democratic strength on the part of this jury to ignore the sounds of the protests outside…including the fear of what they might find when they get home," Adam Ruther, a former assistant state's attorney for Baltimore City, told Fusion.


"That is a lot to ask, particularly in this type of case," he said.

Of course, the real task for this judge is to figure out whether the people in the potential jury pool have fully formed opinions about the guilt of the defendant, and not whether they have heard of the case, Ruther said. When the judge continued in his line of questioning to the pool of jurors, he asked the 75 people present whether they had "strong feelings" about the charges that Porter faces. Twenty six people stood up.


Judge Barry G. Williams—who used to prosecute police officers when he worked with the Justice Department—is no doubt capable of narrowing down the jury pool and overseeing a fair trial. But as it is so often with questions of justice, the perception that justice is served is just as important as actually serving it.

The real problem is: when the trial is said and done, will people look back and see it as fair?


Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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