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In acquittal of Baltimore officer, two views of justice collide

Models of thought

The second of six Baltimore officers on trial regarding the death of Freddie Gray was acquitted Monday. Activists demand justice, but the case was an unusual one.

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John Nero (center l.) and Edward Nero (center r.), brother and father of Officer Edward Nero, one of six Baltimore city police officers charged in connection to the death of Freddie Gray, are escorted out of a courthouse after Mr. Nero was acquitted of all charges in his trial in Baltimore Monday.

Patrick Semansky/AP

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The second of six trials related to the death of Freddie Gray last year ended Monday with a judge clearing Baltimore police officer Edward Nero of all charges against him.

The decision brings into sharp relief a fact repeated by some black activists nationwide: In the nearly two years since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo., not one police officer has yet been convicted in a high-profile case.

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No police reform will resonate as much as a conviction, says the Rev. Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon, a local activist in Baltimore.

It “would send a message that police brutality is unacceptable in Baltimore city,” he says. “Now, as officers continue to walk, it sends the message that killing black people is acceptable.”

Yet Mr. Nero’s case may not have been the best place to look for that kind of justice, legal experts say. In many ways, it may have been the worst.

Prosecutors pursued a novel, perhaps unprecedented, legal strategy, arguing that Nero was partially responsible for Mr. Gray’s death because he arrested Gray without probable cause. Gray sustained fatal injuries later, when Nero was no longer involved.

It might be difficult for community members to comprehend how hard a case this was for prosecutors to make, says A. Dwight Pettit, a veteran Baltimore defense attorney.

“For one case to go down should not be interpreted by the community as prosecutorial overreaching, or that all the cases are going to fail,” he says. “They’re going to have to be patient, because this case involves more legal questions that have been unresolved and unanswered than any case I’ve seen in recent memory.”

The trials of six Baltimore police officers involved in Gray’s death are the first high-profile cases of police violence to go to court since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Nero is the second to stand trial. The first trial, of Officer William Porter, resulted in a December mistrial when jurors couldn’t agree on a verdict.

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Mr. Witherspoon is already chalking it up as a loss.

“So far we’ve had a mistrial and an acquittal. No one has been held accountable for the killing of Freddie Gray,” he says. “The only measure of justice that will lead to healing is the conviction of these officers.”

“We can’t have peace until we have justice first,” he adds. “Peace without justice is only an imitation of what peace really has the potential to be if everyone is treated fairly in our society.”

For Judge Barry Williams the issue of fair treatment in this case appeared to center on Nero. Nero was one of the bicycle officers who pursued and arrested Gray on the night of his death. He then helped load Gray into the back of a police van where he was left unbuckled and, during the ride, sustained the spinal injury that caused his death.

Judge Williams appeared skeptical of the prosecution’s arguments throughout the five-day bench trial last week.

“You’re saying here in this court that if there’s an arrest and there isn’t probable cause, it is a crime?” he repeatedly asked prosecutors, according to The Guardian.

He ruled that Nero’s contact with Gray was “legally justified,” and that it was not unreasonable for Nero to defer to a superior officer – in this case, the van’s driver – about whether to belt Gray.

The next officer to stand trial will be the driver, Officer Caesar Goodson, in two weeks. He faces the more serious charge of second-degree depraved-heart murder.

But recent history in Baltimore – and the high legal standard required to convict police officers – has African-Americans in Baltimore skeptical that convictions will be coming.

No charges were brought against Baltimore officers involved in the deaths of Anthony Anderson in September 2012, Tyrone West in July 2013, and George Vonn King Jr. in May 2014. Last year in the United States, a dozen police officers were charged in fatal shootings, the highest number in a decade, but none have yet been convicted, though some proceedings are ongoing.

Wary of protests that descended into riots after Gray’s death last April, politicians and community leaders appealed for calm Monday. In a statement, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland thanked Judge Williams for his service and asked Baltimore residents to “trust in the judicial process.” Gray’s family also said it respected the verdict.

Even the Porter mistrial was a “huge step forward” for police accountability in Baltimore, says Douglas Colbert, a professor at University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law. That’s true after Nero’s acquittal, too, he suggests.

“There are substantial benefits to a public trial and prosecution, whatever the outcome,” says Professor Colbert. “Sometimes trials may not result in the justice that people seek, but lead to change that will avoid further catastrophes.”