(Reuters) - The trial of a Baltimore police officer charged in the death of a black man from injuries suffered in custody is likely to focus on the officer’s medical expertise, the victim’s history of claiming injury and even how closely the officer read his e-mail.
As the trial of Officer William Porter in the death of Freddie Gray goes into its first full week of testimony on Monday, prosecutors face a tough task. They must prove the officer knew he was violating policy when he failed to secure Gray in a police van and did not get him medical help despite repeated pleas, legal experts said.
“The biggest doubt in the case comes down to what was going on in Officer Porter’s head,” said David Jaros, a University of Baltimore law professor.
He added that he was unsure that prosecutors could prove that Porter knew there was a high risk of death or serious injury by not getting Gray medical attention.
Porter, 26, is on trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court on charges that include involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault and misconduct.
He is the first of six Baltimore police officers to face trial in connection with Gray’s April death, which triggered rioting in the largely black city and intensified a U.S. debate on the use of excessive force by police against minorities.
Gray was bundled into the van while handcuffed and shackled but not buckled into a seatbelt. He died from a spinal injury.
Porter, who is black, has told investigators he helped Gray onto a van bench and passed on Gray’s request for medical assistance to driver Officer Caesar Goodson and Sergeant Alicia White. None came until the van arrived at a police station.
The outcome of the six officers’ trials could influence U.S. prosecutors in bringing similar charges in cases of alleged police brutality, according to legal experts.
Warren Alperstein, a former Baltimore prosecutor, said the defense had shown that Porter may have been unaware of a new policy that mandated that all passengers fasten seat belts in police vehicles.
The policy was sent to officers three days before Gray’s arrest via an 80-page email, testimony has shown.
“I suspect that an argument grounded in common sense and logic will be made to the jury whereby the defense attorneys ask the jury, ‘Do you read every email you get within a day or two... without being prompted?’” Alperstein said.
Defense attorneys say Porter received 41 emails that day. There is no indication that the policy was announced to officers at roll call.
Porter was aware of Gray’s reputation for feigning injury during his frequent brushes with police in a bid to avoid going to jail, Jaros said.
Alperstein said medics called to examine Gray initially thought he had overdosed on drugs.
“If the paramedics couldn’t detect that it was a spinal cord injury, how could you expect an officer with barely two years on the force to distinguish whether it’s a fake injury or real?” he said.
Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington and Donna Owens in Baltimore; Editing by Scott Malone and Dan Grebler
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