The announcement Friday that six police officers would face criminal charges in the death of Freddie Gray prompted boisterous celebrations in the streets of Baltimore and objections from some police organizations that the rare move was politically motivated.
Cheers erupted and horns honked as Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby read the list of charges at a press conference on the steps of the Baltimore War Memorial Building on Friday. The charges range from second-degree “depraved heart” murder to misconduct and carry possible sentences of three to 30 years in prison.
Mosby said the officers illegally arrested Gray, cuffed his hands, shackled his feet and left him belly-down and unsecured on the floor of a police vehicle. They repeatedly denied him medical treatment, said Mosby, the top prosecutor for Baltimore City, who led an independent investigation into Gray’s death.
Gray, 25, died of a spinal injury after his arrest on April 12. Mosby said the Baltimore medical examiner had ruled his death a homicide.
“No one is above the law and I will seek justice,” she said.
“To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America: I heard your call for ‘No justice, no peace,’” she said. “Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man.”
The police union in Baltimore defended the officers’ actions and called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to determine whether charges should be filed.
“As tragic as this situation is, none of the officers involved are responsible for the death of Mr. Gray,” wrote Gene Ryan, president of Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge No. 3, in an open letter to Mosby.
“To the contrary,” Ryan wrote, “at all times, each of the officers diligently balanced their obligations to protect Mr. Gray and discharge their duties to protect the public.”
Ryan urged Mosby to remove herself from the case because of alleged conflicts of interest that he said included her “personal and professional relationship” with the Gray family’s attorney, William Murphy, and her husband’s position on the city council.
“Most importantly, it is clear that your husband’s political future will be directly impacted, for better or worse, by the outcome of your investigation,” he wrote.
President Barack Obama, speaking at an event for World Press Freedom Day, said he had not yet seen the nature of the charges against the police officers, but that “it is absolutely vital that the truth comes out on what happened” to Gray.
“It is my practice not to comment on the legal processes involved. That would not be appropriate,” Obama said. “But I can tell you that justice needs to be served. All the evidence needs to be presented. Those individuals who are charged obviously are also entitled to due process and rule of law. So I want to make sure that our legal system runs the way it should.”
At her press conference on Friday, Mosby gave a detailed time line of events as determined by her investigation. She said officers arrested Gray without probable cause at about 9 a.m. after making eye contact with him on bike patrol. Gray ran, and the police gave chase, Mosby said.
Gray surrendered to the police, who handcuffed him and put him in a prone position on the ground, she said.
Mosby said Gray told the officers he couldn’t breathe and asked for an inhaler but was ignored.
The officers pulled Gray into a seated position, she said. Inside his pants pocket, they found a knife _ the blade folded into its handle _ but it was not a switchblade, Mosby said, and he was permitted to have it under Baltimore law.
Gray began to scream as the officers restrained him with flex cuffs on his wrists and leg shackles on his ankles and what Mosby described as a “leg lace” hold. He was placed in the police van head first, belly-down on the floor.
Gray repeatedly asked in vain for medical aid as his condition deteriorated, Mosby said.
Instead of helping him, officers left him lying in the back of their van, without a seat belt, and even responded to another call with Gray lying critically injured on the floor, she said.
Successful prosecutions of officers accused of excessive force are rare and “you can count them on fingers, not your toes,” said Gene Iredale, a California attorney who has filed wrongful death lawsuits against law enforcement officers.
In cases in which the death or injury occurs before an arrest takes place, officers often successfully argue they felt threatened and were forced to protect themselves.
Because Gray died while in custody after what prosecutors allege to be an illegal arrest, prosecutors won’t face those legal hurdles, Iredale said.
“This is a case of someone already in custody,” he said. “When someone is entirely restrained, there is no possible justification for the use of deadly force. That’s an illegal use of force.”
Bill Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, argued that officers are not frequently charged criminally involving the death of a subject not because officers aren’t scrutinized, but because usually the officers acted in accordance with the law.
“I don’t know how much of it is, frankly, a response to political pressure. I hope none of it,” said Johnson, whose organization represents police units and associations from across the United States. “But I think its naive to think that the elected state’s attorney isn’t sensitive to what’s going on politically.”
The politicization of police use-of-force cases is a growing concern among law enforcement officers nationally, he said.
“It seems that so many cities across the country are being subjected to these violent mobs that are protesting and it can’t help but agitate for political attacks on police and sometimes physical attacks on police,” he added.
Johnson stressed that although the allegations are serious, they still are just allegations.
“The officers, just like anybody else, are entitled to the presumption of innocence, just like any one else,” he said.
Even if she has strong evidence, Mosby could have a hard time making the charges stick.
Prosecutors often face an uphill battle in court because juries and even judges tend to be more sympathetic to police officers and skeptical of victims who can have a history of prior arrests, Iredale said.
“The application of the law in an impartial manner to police officers is what we call a hen’s tooth prosecution,” he said. “It’s something that should be, but is rarely found.”
Police are generally accorded a certain degree of deference by jurors, Iredale said. “It’s human nature. People think, ‘They’ve got a tough, dangerous job protecting me.’ As a practical matter, it’s hard to convict.”
The American Civil Liberties Union hailed Friday’s announcement of criminal charges against the officers as “historic” for Maryland, a state that has prosecuted less than 2 percent of police-involved deaths.
“We hope this marks the beginning of a nationwide awakening to the many injustices and inequalities that we have allowed to continue for far too long,” said Susan Goering, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, in a statement.