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The trials of 6 Baltimore police officers over Freddie Gray's death, explained

Baltimore police officer Edward Nero.
Baltimore police officer Edward Nero.
Mark Makela/Getty Images

In 2015, Freddie Gray died from a neck injury while in Baltimore police custody — a fatal injury sustained as he thrashed around the back of a police wagon while cuffed without a seat belt. Now, more than a year and two trials later, a judge has handed down the first verdict in the trials of six Baltimore police officers involved in Gray's arrest, transportation, and death: not guilty.

Judge Barry Williams announced his decision in officer Edward Nero's case, after Nero had asked for a bench trial — in which the judge makes a decision — over a jury trial. In doing so, Williams essentially declared that Nero had acted as "a reasonable officer" when he arrested Gray and decided not to fasten Gray's seatbelt as he placed him in the back of the police van. Nero faced charges for second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and two counts of misconduct in office; he was acquitted on all of them.

Although Nero's case is the first verdict, it is the second Freddie Gray trial to reach somewhat of a conclusion. The previous case — of officer William Porter — ended in a mistrial. As with the other five officers on trial, Nero was suspended without pay.

Gray suffered a fatal spinal cord injury April 12 as he thrashed around the back of a police van without a seat belt, restrained by handcuffs, and despite repeated pleas for medical aid. Prosecutors argued that the police officers involved in Gray's arrest and transportation acted negligently, putting Gray's life in clear danger. They charged all six with dozens of charges ranging from misconduct in office to "depraved-heart murder."

In Nero's case, a judge apparently disagreed. It's unclear how the community and Black Lives Matter protesters in Baltimore will react the ruling, which is essentially the second to come out against their favor. But after Gray's death led to protests and riots in Baltimore, tensions remain fairly high in the city with a troubled police history.

Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody

Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spinal cord injury on April 12 when he was tossed around the back of a police van. He was shackled by his hands and feet but unrestrained by a seatbelt, which meant he couldn't protect himself from the impact as he crashed into the interior of the vehicle. An autopsy report found Gray likely received the injury when the van suddenly decelerated. He died a week later, on April 19.

On May 1, Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that the death had been ruled a homicide by a medical examiner. Mosby announced 28 criminal charges, including second-degree murder and manslaughter, against the six officers involved in Gray's arrest. A grand jury on May 21 indicted all six officers for Gray's death.

Gray was arrested for allegedly possessing a switchblade, but Mosby said Gray's knife wasn't a switchblade and was therefore legal. According to a timeline provided by Mosby, Gray fled at the sight of police presence in an area of town known for drug dealing. Police pursued Gray, eventually catching up and restraining him on the ground. Officers then arrested Gray after they noticed a knife on him.

Video footage of the arrest showed officers dragging Gray, who is screaming in apparent pain, to a police van. Police don't use force in the video, but the recording started after the officers already had Gray in custody.

One of the people who recorded the arrest, Kevin Moore, described the scene to the Baltimore Sun's Catherine Rentz, claiming that police folded Gray like "origami," contradicting claims that officers peacefully restrained him. "The officer had their knee in his neck. And he was just screaming — screaming for life," Moore said. "He couldn't breathe. He needed an asthma pump, which he let them know… They ignored it."

Police transported Gray to the station in a van, in which he reportedly experienced a medical emergency as a result of his neck injury and was eventually transferred to trauma care. Gray wasn't wearing a seat belt while riding in the van, former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts revealed in a press conference on April 24. "No excuses for that, period," he said.

At several points, Gray pleaded for medical care — including an inhaler for his asthma — but police ignored him. One of the officers thought Gray was faking his injury, according to the Baltimore Sun's Justin George. But Batts said at an April 20 press conference that there were multiple occasions when police should have called medics but didn't, and those failures have prompted a review of police policies to ensure detainees get medical care when they need it.

The police van reportedly stopped at least four times before Gray was sent to trauma care — once to place leg shackles on Gray, and later to pick up another detainee, who was separated from Gray by a metal barrier in the back of the van.

Gray was not the first victim of an allegedly abusive Baltimore police force. A September 2014 report by Mark Puente for the Baltimore Sun found, for instance, that the city had paid about $5.7 million in settlements since 2011 to more than 100 people — most of whom were black — who claimed that officers had beaten them, although police didn't admit fault in those cases. Critics of Baltimore police blamed Gray's death on a practice cops had allegedly used in the past: "rough rides," in which handcuffed detainees are driven in a reckless manner while they're not wearing seat belts — all to purposely cause injuries.

The protests and riots over Gray's death, then, were about more than just one death. They were about what many in Baltimore's minority communities saw as a pattern of police brutality. Residents weren't lashing out in violence just to take advantage of the situation — they were unleashing anger that's long existed in these communities.

"I was one of the ones who started the peaceful protests … the first seven days [after Gray's death], when it was fine and dandy," William Stewart, a West Baltimore resident who didn't participate in the riots, told Vox's Jenée Desmond-Harris. "I walked about 101 miles in peace. But if you protest peacefully, they don't give a shit."

The trials are the most high-profile Black Lives Matter cases

Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby's announcement in May that she would file criminal charges against six police officers over Gray's death was a significant development for the Black Lives Matter movement. Up to that point, the two biggest cases — of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City — led to no criminal charges. The charges, then, seemed like the beginning of a turning point in how prosecutors and the public perceive police.

In general, police are very rarely prosecuted for using deadly force — and not just because the law allows them wide latitude to use force on the job. Sometimes the investigations fall onto the same police department the officer is from — as is the case in Gray's death — which creates a conflict of interest. Other times, the best evidence comes from eyewitnesses, who can be notoriously unreliable and may be viewed as less trustworthy in the public eye than a police officer.

"There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility," David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, told Vox's Amanda Taub. "And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody who we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction."

An analysis from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland found that police were charged in less than 2 percent of police-involved killings between 2010 and 2014. In these killings, 69 percent of the victims were black, even though they make up 29 percent of Maryland's population. About 41 percent of the victims were unarmed.

If police are charged, they're very rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of those officers ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those figures are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.

To protesters, holding police accountable with charges and convictions is important not just to punish some officers for wrongdoing but to send a message to all police departments that brutality and excessive use of force shouldn't be legally tolerated.

But the numbers suggest that it would be truly rare if the officers involved in Gray's arrest were convicted of a crime. And without a conviction, it's likely tensions will remain high — which is why the trials are so important.

Black suspects are much more likely to be killed by police

Although Gray's death wasn't a shooting, it highlighted the excessive use of force by police that became a crucial point of protest within the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few years.

police shooting by race Joe Posner/Vox

An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox's Dara Lind shows that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: Black people accounted for 31 percent of police shooting victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete, since it's based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.

Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the FBI data. ProPublica's Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones, and Eric Sagara reported: "One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica's analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring — 185, more than one per week."

The disparities appear to be even starker for unarmed suspects, according to an analysis of 2015 police killings by the Guardian. Racial minorities made up about 37.4 percent of the general population and 46.6 percent of armed and unarmed victims, but they made up 62.7 percent of unarmed people killed by police.

There have been several high-profile police killings since 2014 involving black suspects. In North Charleston, South Carolina, Michael Slager was charged with murder and fired from the police department after shooting Walter Scott, who was fleeing and unarmed at the time. In Ferguson, Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.

One possible explanation for the racial disparities: subconscious biases. Studies show that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it's possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."

Part of the solution to this type of bias is better training that helps cops acknowledge and deal with their potential subconscious prejudices. But critics also argue that more accountability could help deter future brutality or excessive use of force, since it would make it clear that there are consequences to the misuse and abuse of police powers. Yet right now, lax legal standards make it difficult to legally punish individual police officers for use of force, even when it might be excessive.

Read: The full list of criminal charges over Freddie Gray's death

Here's the full list of the criminal charges, taken from a release handed out by the state attorney's office:

Officer Caesar Goodson Jr.

  1. Second-degree depraved-heart murder, 30 years
  2. Involuntary manslaughter, 10 years
  3. Second-degree assault, 10 years
  4. Manslaughter by vehicle (gross negligence), 10 years
  5. Manslaughter by vehicle (criminal negligence), 3 years
  6. Misconduct in office, no specific sentence
  7. Reckless endangerment, 5 years

Officer William Porter

  1. Involuntary manslaughter, 10 years
  2. Second-degree assault, 10 years
  3. Misconduct in office, no specific sentence
  4. Reckless endangerment, 5 years

Lt. Brian Rice

  1. Involuntary manslaughter, 10 years
  2. Second-degree assault, 10 years
  3. Misconduct in office, no specific sentence
  4. Misconduct in office, no specific sentence
  5. Reckless endangerment, 5 years

Officer Edward Nero

  1. Second-degree assault, 10 years
  2. Misconduct in office, no specific sentence
  3. Misconduct in office, no specific sentence
  4. Reckless endangerment, 5 years

Officer Garrett Miller

  1. Second-degree assault, 10 years
  2. Misconduct in office, no specific sentence
  3. Misconduct in office, no specific sentence
  4. Reckless endangerment, 5 years

Sgt. Alicia White

  1. Involuntary manslaughter, 10 years
  2. Second-degree assault, 10 years
  3. Misconduct in office, no specific sentence
  4. Reckless endangerment, 5 years

Watch: Why it's so important to film the police

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