As of 9:30 a.m., the first trial of a Baltimore police officer accused in the death of Freddie Gray was underway Monday at the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse. Officer William G. Porter is the first of the six officers to face trial in the 25-year-old’s April death in police custody, which sparked protests that gave way to arson and looting on the day of Gray’s funeral.
First of 6
When it comes to the trials, this is only the beginning. Judge Barry Williams ruled that the six officers will be tried separately, with Porter going first. After several months of pretrial hearings and talk about the case, the trial presents the opportunity for prosecutors to lay out what they believe happened during Gray’s April 12 arrest. The trial also provides an opportunity for officers to defend themselves. With five more trials to follow, any testimony or new findings exposed during Porter’s trial will also have implications for future court dates.
Porter, 26, is charged with manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. He pleaded not guilty to the charges. Porter was not involved in the entire incident with Gray, nor is he facing the most serious charges. But Porter was present at multiple stops of the police transport van, where prosecutors say he should have asked for medical attention for Gray. According to the Baltimore Sun, Porter told police investigating the case that Gray asked for help, and that he wasn’t sure if Gray was faking injury. Judge Williams ruled that videos of Gray being shackled can be shown, but it’s not known whether those will come into play during Porter’s trial.
Monday, Nov. 30, is the start of jury selection, where prosecutors will vet the 12 men and women who will eventually decide Porter’s fate from as many as 80 potential jurors. Despite attempts by the police officers’ attorneys to move it beyond city limits, Judge Williams initially ruled that the trial can stay in Baltimore. However, he left the door open to potentially moving the trial if there are issues seating a jury that’s viewed by the court as impartial. When they’re seated, the jury will remain anonymous. The judge also barred attorneys from talking about the case publicly.
Trials deal in specific facts about specific cases. And in Porter’s case, the trial deals with one officer’s role in a larger situation. But in symbolic ways that aren’t likely to come out in court, the fact that Porter is going first reflects Baltimore’s unique place within the national narrative about police violence. Porter gave a single interview to the Washington Post in the run-up to the trial that showed how Porter and Gray — both African-Americans from West Baltimore — came from similar backgrounds. “If I had made different choices, I would have been Freddie Gray,” Porter said. “If he had made different choices, he could have been an Officer Porter.” At the same time, the protests and unrest that followed went further than other police violence cases in exposing the structural issues that shaped Gray, Porter and the community’s relationship with police.
Local groups like the People’s Power Assembly and Bmore Bloc are planning to protest outside the Mitchell Courthouse. Activists calling for justice in police violence cases were outside the courthouse at pre-trial hearings. Even before Freddie Gray’s death, they protested on occasions like last year’s Monument Lighting. And each week, a group gathers at City Hall for West Wednesdays to call for justice for Tyrone West, who died after being beaten by police. Groups also staged a sit-in at City Hall during hearings to confirm Kevin Davis as Baltimore’s permanent police commissioner.
Officials Call for Calm
For city officials, the potential for more unrest in the event of a court decision that’s viewed as unfavorable. Police have said they took steps to better prepare dealing with unruly crowds, like ordering more riot gear, training and preparing tactics as recommended by an independent agency. Even mayoral candidate Sheila Dixon released a statement, “asking all residents to be respectful of the trial that begins on November 30, and if you feel the need to protest during the trial to do so respectfully and peacefully.”
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