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What Went Wrong For Prosecutors In Freddie Gray Case?


We wanted to take a closer look at what has become a familiar pattern in the wake of a number of high-profile cases involving the deaths of black people in police custody. Last week, charges were dropped against the last three Baltimore officers accused in the death of Freddie Gray. Freddie Gray, as you probably recall, died of neck injuries received while in the back of a police van. Six officers in all faced charges and none was convicted.

Neither were any of the officers connected to the deaths of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland or 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. While each case is unique, we thought this would be a good time to ask why the results are so often the same, so we called David Jaros, associate professor of law at the University of Baltimore, at his office. And I asked him, what was his key takeaway in the Freddie Gray case?

DAVID JAROS: Well, you know, to begin with, one big takeaway was that this was a very hard case to prove. And the theory of the case really changed over time. I think for the public and for the prosecutor, this case began as a case about a rough ride where there was an allegation or suggestion that the officers had deliberately placed Mr. Gray in the van and then driven it in such a way as to deliberately injure him, and perhaps it had been a more serious injury than they intended. But as the cases wore on, it became clear that they simply didn't have evidence to prove that a rough ride had occurred. And so this case became a - really a case based on an omission, based on the failure to buckle Mr. Gray in and the failure to get medical attention. And at that point, it became a much harder case to prove.

MARTIN: Now, the Fraternal Order of Police was very critical of State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby to begin with, saying that the prosecution was malicious, that there was not evidence to convict these officers to begin with, and that she essentially pursued it for political reasons. What do you make of that?

JAROS: Well, I think there's two aspects to that argument. As to the sort of general - the specific question of whether or not it was a viable case, it's important to note that the grand jury found probable cause. And when the evidence had been presented by the prosecution and the defense filed their motion to dismiss, the judge rejected it and essentially said that, you know, a reasonable juror could have convicted. So I think to some extent - there have been grievances filed against the state's attorney in this case. I think that will put those grievances to bed, that it was at least a valid case to bring. But the larger question about whether or not there were political motivations is much more difficult to untangle.

MARTIN: Is there a general reluctance, though, on the part of jurors and judges to convict police officers?

JAROS: Well, I think we - first we have to distinguish between judges and jurors. But if you look across the country the general perception, and there is - I should note that there is a trial of a police officer shooting here in Baltimore right now, and it is in front of a jury. But the vast majority of these cases are ultimately tried in front of judges. The officers waive the jury, and the judge is both the law giver and the fact finder.

And I think there is a legitimate concern that judges not necessarily are, you know, deliberately not following the law, but that they're inclined to be sympathetic towards police officers and find their side of the story credible, and thus find it relatively easy to find reasonable doubt. And that's a concern.

At the same time, here in Baltimore I do think that there's a concern with whether or not the defendants felt they could get a fair trial from a Baltimore jury given what had happened. And in this case, I actually think the ability to waive the jury and proceed in front of the judge was an important safeguard in ensuring that the defendant had a fact that can be truly unbiased.

MARTIN: I do not wish my question to be interpreted to mean that I have any opinion about the outcome of this case or any other, but where there are successful convictions of police officers in connection with the deaths of civilians, is there any through line there?

JAROS: I think there is. Although at the end I think, you know, there's too many at least egregious charges that have failed to be proved that I think, you know, very much a lot comes down to what evidence the prosecution has available. And that's really important because there is a problem developing evidence in these cases. This is not saying that this is what happened in the Freddie Gray case specifically, but there's no question that there's social pressure on police officers not to cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of a brother or sister officer.

We've had an officer here in Baltimore who was drummed out of the police department for turning in a fellow officer. And so when you can't develop the evidence, it's much harder to make the case. It's interesting that the case that is currently being tried here in Baltimore - actually, the fellow officers did choose to cooperate with the prosecution. And that case looks to be much stronger for the prosecution.

MARTIN: That's David Jaros. He's associate professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law. We reached him at his office. Professor Jaros, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JAROS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.