When the 2015 Baltimore uprising took place, I was teaching English at an affluent private middle school in the city. We had been studying To Kill a Mockingbird and had just finished the chapter in which we discover that Tom tried to escape from prison – earning himself seventeen bullets in the back. The film version softens the blow by making it a single shot, but the end result for Tom is the same, just as it has been for far too many Black men in the years since Harper Lee wrote the novel. We didn’t really talk about Freddie Gray in the classroom; such charged topics were taboo at school, but how little seemed to have changed in attitude and practice since the 1960s was not lost on me. As I watched my city burn, I had no idea that much of the information I was learning about what happened to Freddie Gray was as manufactured as the story the prison warden tells Atticus Finch about Tom. 

In her new book, They Killed Freddie Gray, Justine Barron untangles the mess of fact and false information that circulated about the Gray case, helping to paint the most accurate picture we have of what happened that day in April 2015. We are grateful that she shared some of her key findings with us.

Baltimore Fishbowl: Your examination of Freddie Gray’s death began as a podcast in 2017. Could you talk about why you decided to expand your research into a book? Why did you feel it was important to continue pursuing answers in this particular case? 

Justine Barron: My book is based on mounds of new evidence that my investigative partner, Amelia McDonell-Parry, and I didn’t have during the recording of the “Undisclosed” podcast series. 

The book answers a lot of questions raised by the podcast. Our podcast did a great job at deconstructing the details of the police’s narrative—the chase, knife arrest, six-stop van ride, the theory that Gray was killed from being thrown forward while the van was in motion. We had a theory of deadly police force at the van’s second stop based on a compelling eyewitness and a couple of witnesses backing her up, and this theory aligned with the medical evidence. 

Then, near the beginning of 2020, a source delivered me a goldmine of unreleased evidence that was never supposed to be public, and that’s when I knew I had a book to write. It exposed a cover-up that was far more extensive than we had realized. 

I obtained discovery evidence that State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office had turned over to the defense attorneys representing the officers, but her team didn’t use in court. Most notably, there were many statements by eyewitnesses which were remarkably consistent about force at the first two stops, with details corroborated by other evidence. Mosby’s office did not consider these witness statements important, as prosecutors denied that the officers used force during the first two stops at Gilmor Homes. 

BFB: How did the very deep and detailed research you did for the book change your understanding of the case? 

JB: Working on this book gave me the chance to put all of the puzzle pieces of Gray’s arrest together in intricate, interconnected detail. And I was able to identify where certain decisions by investigators and officials fell on the spectrum from incompetence to corruption. Writing the book also allowed me to tie this case to the broader story of Baltimore and U.S. criminal justice. 

One big take-away is that there isn’t just a thin blue line but a very thick one. The book reveals all of the institutions that protect officers from accountability. This included Mosby’s office, which might sound strange considering that she charged six officers. That part of the story is the most layered. 

Another big takeaway is the power of a police lie. Once police state something or write it down, it has enormous power to influence investigators, prosecutors, judges, the medical examiner, the media, and so on. Forget contradictory or missing evidence! Forget a dozen corroborating witnesses! What matters is what “police say.” A police lie has even more power than photographic evidence of force on Gray’s body. 

BFB: In the book you discuss and debunk a number of falsehoods that circulated about the case. What were some of the most egregious stories about Freddie Gray’s case, and why are rumors such as these so harmful?

JB: The big defining lie was introduced by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on the day after Gray’s death. His fatal injury “happened in the van,” she said, meaning behind closed doors, without cameras or people watching, so it was a mystery. There was no proof of this claim. Police had barely investigated the case at that point. There was more evidence of excessive force. Rawlings-Blake wasn’t alone in pushing that agenda after Gray’s death.

There were also a ridiculous number of false leaks to the media about how Gray was killed —banging his head, a bolt in the van, and so on—six in one week! Most were reported seriously by major news outlets based on “sources.” BPD used these stories to successfully distract the media and public.

Behind the scenes, the most influential lie in the case was that Gray caused the van to shake at Stop 2. This small detail becomes a true-crime linchpin in the narrative and unfolds in fascinating ways.

BFB: In the introduction, you note that your original podcast led to a cease-and-desist letter from the Fraternal Order of Police. Has the publication of this book created any similar reactions? Has there been renewed media interest in the case since your findings?

JB: One of the lead prosecutors sent me a threatening legal letter recently. The publisher and I brought in lawyers to make sure that I was not defaming anyone, just revealing facts. The letter actually ended up as evidence in the book, because it made a claim about the witnesses. I’ll take whatever evidence I can find! 

Amelia and I have struggled for years to get local reporters to care about new evidence. We offered to share the files themselves. We were ignored or even told our evidence couldn’t be trusted. I had videos! I’ve been dealing with these issues for years in Baltimore, not just on this story. 

I’m not sure if my book will renew interest in this case, but I hope so. It’s an uphill battle to radically correct the record on a famous story. Most people believe Gray was killed from a rough ride or during his initial arrest. He did seem to be in physical distress in the viral video of his arrest, and there’s evidence to support he was injured, if not fatally, at that point. But my book offers substantial evidence of a different cause of death, which happened around the corner from his arrest. 

BFB: Your research reveals that multiple institutions including the police, the Baltimore City government, and somewhat surprisingly even the media were all involved in essentially covering up the truth of what happened to Freddie Gray. How much of this do you think was an orchestrated effort? Do you have new insights as to why the media would have settled for less than the truth?

JB: In terms of key parties—BPD, the State’s Attorney’s Office, Fraternal Order of Police, City Hall, the Medical Examiner’s office, others—I offer strong evidence of coordination around certain parts of the narrative, particularly that it “happened in the van.” All of this started in the days just after Gray died. I have notes from meetings, officials whispering on a hot mic, and more. The parties involved didn’t all have the same agendas or levels of awareness. Cover ups at this level take both willing and naive participants. 

The media is a different story. Each outlet is different in terms of why and how it ended up reinforcing police untruths. I have a chapter on the media. I couldn’t avoid asking: how did mainstream media cover this case obsessively for two years and miss what really happened?

They got caught up in the mystery, spectacle, and racial tension—Black against Blue Lives, Mosby against BPD. Police benefit when cases become polarized and politicized. It takes the heat off of the facts.

BFB: Obviously we can’t do anything now to help Freddie Gray, but what do you hope readers of your book will take away from the new insights into the case? How do you hope this investigation might change things in the future?

Without being didactic, I really did want this book to offer an inside-policing kind of blueprint for how to hold police accountable in similar cases, down to scrutinizing body cam footage. 

But mostly, I just wanted to correct the historical record. Maybe, after reading this book, people will have some insight into how much of what we think happened in history was actually propaganda and cover up. 

Upcoming Events for They Killed Freddie Gray

August 10 at 7pm: Book Launch at Red Emma’s bookstore. Guests will include witnesses to what happened to Freddie, who didn’t get to testify in court, and people who were on the ground during the Baltimore Uprising.  

August 11 at 6pm: Event/discussion with Bards Alley in Vienna, VA, with Wesley Lowery (“They Can’t Kill Us All”)

August 22 at 3pm (6pm PST): Virtual event with City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, including Rabia Chaudry and Alex Vitale (“The End of Policing”). 

Elizabeth Hazen is a poet and essayist whose poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, American Literary Review, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, and other journals. Alan Squire Publishing released her...