BALTIMORE (AP) — Seven months after Baltimore erupted in riots over the death of Freddie Gray, the first of six police officers charged in the case went on trial Wednesday, with a prosecutor saying the patrolman could have saved Gray’s life simply by pushing a button on his uniform to call for a medic.
Attorneys for Officer William Porter disputed that claim and others made by prosecutors, including exactly when Gray was critically injured in the back of a police van and whether the young black man told Porter he couldn’t breathe.
Porter wasn’t involved in Gray’s initial arrest in April, but he was present at five of six stops that a police transport van made during a 45-minute ride after Gray was taken into custody. At one point, prosecutors said Porter asked Gray if he needed a medic, and the young black man replied that 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.
Instead of calling a medic, prosecutors say Porter picked Gray up from the floor and placed him in an upright position on the bench, and did not secure him in a seatbelt, as required by Baltimore Police Department policy.
Pointing to a poster-sized photo of the van with one of its rear doors open, prosecutor Michael 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.”
Defense attorneys said when Gray began requesting aid, “he showed no signs of needing medical attention because he hadn’t suffered the injury yet.” While Gray’s death is tragic, “so is charging someone who did not precipitate it.”
Porter, who is also black, faces charges of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. The charges carry maximum prison terms totaling about 25 years.
Porter is expected to take the stand in his own defense.
Gray, 25, died April 19 of a severe spinal injury he suffered while riding in the back of police van without a seatbelt. Gray arrived at a police station unresponsive, was taken to a hospital and died a week later.
The prosecutor said Gray’s neck was broken between the second and fourth stops and that such an injury would have impacted his ability to breathe. He implied the injury occurred when the van slammed on its brakes.
“If it slams on its brakes, he’s going to move at the speed it was going before it slams on its brakes,” the prosecutor said. “He’s completely at the mercy of whatever happens.”
The defense attorney told jurors that a man who shared the transport van with Gray from the fifth stop to the final stop at the Western District station house told investigators that Gray was flailing in the van, attempting to injure himself.
Prosecutors said Gray didn’t change positions between the fifth stop and the final stop because he’d already suffered the injury.
A jury was seated in a process that was relatively brisk, given defense assertions in pretrial proceedings that it would be impossible to seat an impartial panel. Judge Barry Williams questioned 150 jurors over two days, mostly out of public view, in an efficient process designed to shield their identities. Some were dismissed, leaving a smaller pool for the final 12 — eight women and four men — and four alternates.
Gray’s death triggered protests and rioting in the city, and helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement. The troubles forced an incumbent mayor to abandon her re-election campaign, and toppled the career of a reform-minded police chief. The Baltimore homicide rate skyrocketed at a pace unseen in decades.
A verdict will likely to set the tone for the city. Many fear that an acquittal could prompt more protests and unrest or that a conviction could send shock waves through the city’s troubled police department.
Two other officers are black and the three additional officers are white. They will be tried separately beginning in January and lasting through the spring.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was harshly criticized in the wake of the civil unrest and her decision to enact and maintain a city-wide curfew aggravated protesters. In August, she announced that she would not seek re-election.
But 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, announced charges against the officers in May, using language so forceful that defense attorneys argued she should recuse herself from the case.
She listened from the third row of the gallery as Shatzow, her chief deputy, gave the state’s opening statement.
The gallery was about half full, including about 50 members of the general public along with reporters and lawyers. Gray’s mother, stepdad and other family members were in attendance as well.
This story has been corrected to say the prosecutor said Gray broke his neck between the second and fourth stops, not the third and fourth stops.
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