U.S. News

Baltimore policeman charged in Freddie Gray death chooses bench trial

BALTIMORE (Reuters) - A Baltimore police officer charged with murder in the 2015 death of black detainee Freddie Gray waived a jury trial on Monday and will be tried by a Maryland judge instead.

Caesar Goodson arrives at the courthouse for the first day of jury selection in Baltimore, Maryland, January 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jose Luis Magana

Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., 46, drove the police van in which Gray broke his neck and is the third officer to face trial for his death. The April 2015 incident triggered protests and rioting and fueled a U.S. debate on police treatment of minorities.

Prosecutors are still seeking a conviction in the high-profile case, with two trials ending in a mistrial and an acquittal.

Goodson’s last-minute decision to have Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams decide the case came during a pre-trial motions hearing. The trial begins on Thursday.

Tim Maloney, a Maryland lawyer who has handled police misconduct cases, said a bench trial was a good move on Goodson’s part since there was a lot of pressure on jurors in the majority black city to convict someone.

Williams “has proven to be a very strict constructionist. He’s going to follow the law, he’s going to follow the evidence here, which a city jury might not be able to do as closely,” he said.

Goodson’s trial likely will focus on medical evidence and department procedures, Maloney said.

Gray, 25, was arrested when he fled officers unprovoked in a high-crime area. He was bundled into a police transport van while shackled and was not seat-belted, a violation of protocol.

Goodson, who is African-American, is charged with second-degree depraved heart murder, the most serious charge against the officers. An autopsy concluded that Gray could not break his fall inside the van during abrupt turns or stops.

Goodson also is charged with three counts of manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.

Williams granted a defense motion to bar reference to a statement that another charged officer, William Porter, allegedly made to an investigating detective in a phone call.

Porter is alleged to have said that he told Goodson at a stop that Gray had complained that he could not breathe. Williams ruled that the comment was hearsay since it had not been recorded.

In a bench trial last month, Williams acquitted Officer Edward Nero of misdemeanor charges that included second-degree assault.

Porter’s trial ended in a hung jury in December. His retrial is scheduled for September and he is expected to testify during Goodson’s trial.

Writing by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler