We were told to trust the system.
It has been 15 months since Freddie Gray suffered a devastating spinal injury in the back of a Baltimore city police metal-lined van when he was taken on a “rough ride” without a seat belt. Gray lingered in a coma for nearly a week before dying in a local hospital.
There is little question about what happened to the 25-year-old. We know where he was injured and how. We know that he was in police custody. And we know that the officers responsible for his well-being took actions they knew would result in bodily harm and then ignored injuries and his pleas for help.
We were told that there would be a price to pay for that.
In the days following the incident, tensions in Baltimore boiled over as city officials offered their assurances in an effort to quell the uprisings with a seven-figure payout announced and prosecutor Marilyn Mosby taking to the courthouse steps to promise the justice system would hold those responsible to account.
“I will seek justice on your behalf,” she said from the courthouse steps.
We were told to expect truth and transparency and last summer, six Baltimore city officers were indicted—three black, three white—including the driver who pulled away, knowing Gray had not been strapped in with a seat belt.
There would be a reckoning for what happened to a young black man who had been suspected of nothing more than averting his eyes and jogging away when police officers looked his way. Lt. Brian Rice, Sgt. Alicia White and Officers Edward Nero, Caesar Goodson, William Porter, Garrett Miller faced various charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to second-degree murder.
While some criticized Mosby’s move to secure indictments against the law enforcement officers at all or warned that she had leveled top charges that would be difficult to convict on, many people believed her when she said she would be their voice.
For them, the math was simple: Gray was an able-bodied man before his encounter with police that day in April 2015. Days later, he died from injuries sustained while in custody. If he had lived, Gray would have likely have been a quadriplegic, unable to move on his own volition from the neck down.
Many people needed to believe that for once the system could work, that it could finally do the job of meting out justice when officers were the ones committing the crimes. They needed to believe that the rule of law and equal protection applied to Gray—and to them too. His death, the blunted end of a black life, they asserted, was worthy of inspection.
If there was some justification for why he was apprehended and how he was treated in custody, then the public had the right to know what that was and to assess its veracity.
That did not happen. In fact, the local police union attacked the very notion that any investigation would result in a conclusion of wrongdoing—even before the first officer involved had so much as given a statement.
It is rare that an officer is charged in the death of a suspect in custody. Prosecutors know that getting a judge or jury to convict a police officer who was acting in the line of duty is all but impossible—no matter the race of the victim.
Mosby had to know that. As she measured the charges, she had to know that the deck was stacked against her. She had to know that by charging the officers with murder, she was asking a judge or jury to do her job and fill in the gaps in evidence.
Every case has its gaps. But, the stakes are larger, the burden of proof is extraordinary when a member of law enforcement is involved. That is not codified into law, but it is baked into our social consciousness. The bar for holding officers to account is higher, because—for better or worse-—we raised it.
Those six officers will walk away scot free because Mosby did not do her job. Despite knowing the hurdles, she pressed ahead with an aggressive prosecution knowing her office could not meet the socially-imposed standard. Whether done mindfully or naively, that is an overcharge.
Maybe they did not intend to kill Gray, but make no mistake. They meant to do him harm.
Whether to shake him up or bully him into submission, they intended to take Gray on a “rough ride.” Officers shackled Gray’s wrists and legs and loaded him into a police transport van without seat-belting him. The medical examiner ruled it a “homicide,” meaning Gray died at the hands of another and not as a result of an accident.
No one is paying a criminal price for that. All six cops will go free and all are still employed by the Baltimore city police department—protected by a union that cannot, even in these egregious circumstances, bring itself to condemn wrongdoing by its members.
Ultimately, the $6.4 million financial settlement from the city may be the only justice the Gray family will ever know.
We should have expected this.
Despite a torrent of public criticism (including from this writer) and no doubt understanding the cavalcade of barriers ahead, Mosby—one of only a handful of black women to hold the job of top prosecutor in a major U.S. city—did not shy away. In a case that rocked the Queen City, spurring public demonstrations and rioting in the city’s downtown and westerly sections, the state’s attorney promised to pursue justice.
But the outcomes of the first three trials ensured the remaining three would go badly for prosecutors if they had proceeded. The trial of Porter, the first to face a jury, ended in a mistrial in December 2015. Two more officers—Nero and Goodson—were acquitted in separate proceedings in May and June.
There was no videotape of the van’s interior and, thus, defense attorneys contended, no way to directly connect the officers to Gray’s death. The point of injury was not captured on camera, and the circumstances surrounding incident were further complicated when erroneous allegations surfaced that Gray had a previous neck injury.
So Mosby finally threw in the towel and dropped the remaining charges against the last three police officers. However, when one considers that few cases ever make it out of internal affairs, let alone into a courtroom, the announcement Wednesday morning came as no real surprise.
The system did not work in this case, and some might argue—given all the we know about our criminal justice system—it never could not have.
Mosby knew, or at least should have known, that going in.