Mimesis Law
27 January 2022

The Freddie Gray Trial & Baltimore: Too Close For Justice?

Sept. 11, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Freddie Gray’s name has been in the news since he died of a spinal cord injury while in police custody. His death triggered riots in Baltimore, where it happened, and his story has become part of the national dialogue about police violence.

Unlike other cases where young black men died at the hands of police officers, six police officers were actually charged in connection with Freddie Gray’s death. That too made national headlines. No doubt, Freddie Gray’s story, and accordingly the story of the people involved in his death, featured even more prominently in the local Baltimore news. His is surely a household name there, especially considering that the city just paid his family a $6.4 million dollar settlement.

In light of all the publicity surrounding Freddie Gray’s death, it should come as no surprise that the charged officers tried to move their trials out of Baltimore. The New York Times reports:

Defense lawyers had argued that it would be impossible for their clients to get fair trials, because of the rioting and unrest set off by Mr. Gray’s death, the intense media publicity surrounding the case and, just this week, an agreement by Baltimore officials to pay the Gray family $6.4 million to settle an expected lawsuit.

“We cannot have a single juror who’s not a taxpayer — every single juror will be paying that settlement,” Ivan Bates, the lawyer arguing on behalf of all six officers, told the judge. He added, “What that settlement says is, ‘These officers are guilty.’”

The defense certainly makes some good points. The victim’s death had a massive impact on the lives of many potential jurors. Their town was torn apart. People they knew might have been hurt or had their property destroyed. Even those locals whose friends and family weren’t personally touched by its effects at the very least heard about it on the news. Unlike those of us hearing about all of this from far away, seeing something on the news about your own backyard carries a different weight, even if you are not directly affected.

Admittedly, a settlement is not necessarily an acknowledgment that the officers are guilty. The prosecutor argued that, and the panel that approved the settlement specifically said it was not an admission of wrongdoing on the part of the city or the officers. In reality, it more likely says that the city wanted this to go away, the cost of fighting the suit would have been more than the amount of the settlement or the publicity surrounding it would’ve made it less than worthwhile. However, although Baltimore may not be saying the officers are guilty, it certainly doesn’t make them look good.

There is also something powerful about the argument that no taxpayer can be a juror. Presumably, Baltimore is funding the settlement with money it obtained from its citizens, the same group of people from which the jurors in the officers’ trials will be selected. Rather than thinking of the argument in terms of a large city like Baltimore, think about the implications in a much smaller community.

The need for a change of venue would be obvious in a tiny village, but where do you draw the line? When a hundred taxpayers bear the burden of paying out the settlement and the jury is selected from them? When it’s a thousand taxpayers serving as the pool? One hundred thousand?

I suppose there may be some questions about the effect of that entire line of reasoning. If I as a taxpayer know my tax dollars will go to paying a settlement for supposed police misconduct, will I hold that against the government employees alleged to be responsible for the misconduct or the people who sued and ultimately won, depriving the city of money that comes from me and other citizens like me?

The former initially seems most plausible, but a deep skepticism about civil plaintiffs seems to permeate our society. It’s easy to see how jurors might come into the case angry at the officers for costing them money, but it’s also not entirely implausible that the jurors might be hesitant to waste more money convicting the officers and presumably sending them to jail when the victim’s family already received a settlement. The taxpayer argument may not be as persuasive as it seems at first.

The judge denied the request:

But Judge Williams rejected the argument, saying that “the citizens of Baltimore are not monolithic, they think for themselves.”

His reasoning isn’t exactly cogent. Sure, I get that the citizens who make up the city are not all going to uniformly feel the same way, but that has little to do with their ability to be fair. They may think for themselves, but they also comprise an entity that already paid out a huge settlement because of the actions of people whose guilt or innocence they must now decide.

It’s hard to see how their intellectual independence alone negates all of the publicity surrounding the case and their responsibility for a settlement undoubtedly caused by the defendant officers’ actions, wrongful or not. They may each have unique reasons for being prejudiced against the officers, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t prejudiced.

In response to the defense’s argument that the riots constituted “a city under siege,” and relentless media coverage prejudices potential jurors, the prosecutor argued that not all the coverage had been negative toward the officers:

“The media hasn’t found these people guilty. The media hasn’t called for their conviction.”

It’s true that there aren’t a lot of mainstream news articles with titles like “the defendants in this case are clearly guilty and must be convicted.” Indeed, the prosecutor’s comments make me wonder what it would take for him to be concerned about news coverage of a case painting a defendant in a negative light. It’s a silly thing to wonder about, though, as he’s realistically never going to see a problem with reporting that makes his job easier.

As noted above, following Freddie Gray’s death, a large number of people were so upset that they rioted, demanding the officers be held responsible. Baltimore looked like a war zone, and eyes nationwide focused on the city. Authorities then quickly charged the officers, an unusual decision in cases of police misconduct, and the city has since paid out a substantial settlement to Freddie Gray’s family. Every bit of this has been plastered all over the news from the very beginning.

Considering that, it’s hard not to wonder what it actually takes these days to convince a judge that a high-profile trial like this needs to be moved to another jurisdiction. Or perhaps there is no amount of prejudice deep enough to warrant a change of venue.

2 Comments on this post.

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  • Burgers Allday
    11 September 2015 at 11:58 am - Reply

    I am convinced that the change of venue made all the difference in the Johannes Mehserle case. As I understand that case, Mehserle’s original story (before the video came out) was that he thought Grant was reaching for a weapon. The thought-I-was-aiming-a-TASER story came much later. At Mehserle’s trial: (i) Mehserle testified; and (ii) he was not cross examined on his original story and why he changed his story. I don’t think an Oakland judge would have allowed things to go down like that.

    I think that the problem with transfer in the Freddie Gray case is that nowhere else in Maryland is remotely comparable to Baltimore. Once you get out of the city it is all Staten Island / Simi Valley / Coeur d’Alene type territory.

  • Wrongway
    12 September 2015 at 2:59 am - Reply

    If it was legal & I could put $1,000 on if any of these 6 will do actual jail time, I’d vote ‘No’..