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Why the fourth officer in Freddie Gray case got an assault charge thrown out

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Patrick Semansky/AP

(Read caption) Lt. Brian Rice, one of the six members of the Baltimore Police Department charged in connection to the death of Freddie Gray, arrives at a courthouse for opening statements in his trial in Baltimore, Thursday.

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In the midst of the fourth trial of an officer involved in the arrest and subsequent death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams has dropped the second-degree assault charge against Lt. Brian Rice. Lieutenant Rice is the highest-ranking official of the six Baltimore officers who were charged after Mr. Gray sustained fatal spinal injuries in the back of a police van.

Judge Williams' decision came on the third day of the trial, and Rice still faces charges of manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and misconduct in office. The decision to throw out the assault charge is another setback for a prosecution that has yet to get any of the charges in the cases so far to stick. Two of the officers have already been in acquitted in bench trials. A third case will have to be retried, as the original jury trial resulted in a hung jury.

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For this charge, the prosecution’s case centered around Rice’s failure to secure Gray's seatbelt after he put him into the police transport van. Prosecutors also say that Rice, as the senior officer present during the arrest, should be held responsible for Gray’s safety during the transport and that his failure to belt Gray “set the stage” for the injury, The Washington Post reports.

“It’s the difference between pulling the trigger when you’re playing Russian roulette and handing someone the loaded gun,” Chief Deputy States Attorney Michael Schatzow told the court. “Had he been restrained, the assault would not have taken place.”

Williams disagreed, saying, as he dropped the charge: “I simply am not satisfied even at this stage that the charge of assault has been met.”

Williams has twice rebuffed prosecutors' cases. He acquitted Edward Nero in May after ruling against the prosecution's assertion that Mr. Nero was partially responsible for the death because he arrested Gray without probable cause. Last month he acquitted van driver, Caesar Goodson of all charges, including “depraved-heart murder,” a second-degree offense that suggests purposeful indifference to harm.

The repeated acquittals of officers in recent high-profile cases of police violence across the nation has roiled those calling for more accountability and systemic change.

“As officers continue to walk, it sends the message that killing black people is acceptable,” the Rev. Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon, a local activist in Baltimore, told the Monitor after the Nero acquittal.

The trials related to Gray’s death are being watched within the context of the larger outrage against police-related violence that has been gaining momentum since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. While each of the officers being tried has a unique set of charges and legal nuance surrounding their case, the Gray case is also missing an element that some recent cases have had – witness video footage.

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Because the incident in question occurred within a police transport van, the injury that caused Gray’s death was sustained without the possibility that a witness with a cell phone could provide evidence.

Even in cases where police violence has been clearly documented by footage, however, there is not a straight line to conviction, or even prosecution.

In New York, a grand jury declined to issue any charges against officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, who died after Mr. Pantaleo put him in a chokehold during a confrontation, as seen in a bystander video that went viral after the arrest.

"There's no doubt in my mind or the mind of all the people out there in the world that what we saw in that video cannot be disputed," Mr. Garner's wife, Esaw Garner, told NBC News. "How they disputed it, I don't know."

In Baltimore on Monday, when the second-degree assault charge was dropped, the trial witness testimony included that of two of the two officers who were also charged: Nero, who was acquitted, and Porter, who had the mistrial, as well as the prisoner on the other side of the partition, Donta Allen.

Nero said that he had no conversation with Rice about whether to seat-belt Gray, while Porter said that when he saw Gray at the end of the ride, he showed no signs of injury. The trial of the additional charges continues today.