BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Jury selection began on Monday in the trial of the first of six police officers charged in the April death of a black man from an injury in police custody that set off rioting in Baltimore and inflamed the U.S. debate on race and justice.
The death of Freddie Gray, 25, followed police killings of black men in other cities, including New York and Ferguson, Missouri, that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has staged more than year of mostly peaceful protests across the United States.
Some 20 protesters assembled outside the downtown courthouse where jury selection was underway. Their cries of “No justice, no peace, no killer police,” and “We won’t stop until killer cops are in cell blocks” could be heard in the courtroom.
Officer William Porter, 26, faces charges including manslaughter, second-degree assault and misconduct in office for Gray’s death, the result of a spinal injury suffered in the back of a police van after he was taken into custody for fleeing an officer and possessing a knife.
Porter, who is black, is accused of ignoring Gray’s requests for medical aid and not putting a seatbelt on him, even though he was shackled and handcuffed. He could face more than 25 years in prison if convicted of all charges.
Baltimore officials imposed a curfew and called in National Guard troops to quell rioting that followed Gray’s death. Unlike in prior cases, prosecutors were quick to bring charges against the officers involved.
City prosecutor Marilyn Mosby announced the charges four days after rioting that followed Gray’s funeral. “To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America, I heard your call for ‘No justice, no peace,’” she said at the time.
Dave Jaros, a University of Baltimore law professor, said the charges contrast sharply with earlier cases in other cities, where police were not charged, and helped to calm the city’s streets by showing “that the political system and the judicial system were not going to give police officers a pass.”
Prosecutors across the United States will watch the case closely, Jaros added, noting that if an acquittal leads to renewed unrest, “there is a danger that prosecutors will be reluctant to bring these cases in future.”
Judge Barry Williams told the roughly 75 potential jurors that the trial would run no later than Dec. 17, with opening arguments in the next day or two. The jury will have 12 members and a number of alternates, who will remain anonymous.
As Williams began winnowing jurors by asking a series of questions, all said they were aware of the Gray case, the unrest that followed it and the $6.4 million Baltimore paid to Gray’s family in a civil settlement. About half said they or an immediate family member had been a victim of crime or had brushes with the law
The other five officers are charged with offenses ranging from second-degree murder for van driver Officer Caesar Goodson to misconduct.
Prosecutors have said they want Porter to stand trial first so they can use him as a potential witness against Goodson and Sergeant Alicia White. Porter’s lawyers have said he is ready to testify in his own defense.
Additional reporting by Donna Owens; Editing by Scott Malone and Dan Grebler