The trial of the first of the first of six Baltimore officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray began today in Baltimore with jury selection. Officer William G. Porter, 26, faces charges of manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office, and reckless endangerment because he allegedly did not get medical help for Gray when he complained of injuries after his arrest.
None of the 75 potential jurors in the first batch questioned by Judge Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams answered affirmatively when asked if they were unfamiliar with this case. Each one also indicated awareness of the $6.4 million civil settlement the city paid to Gray’s family, as well as the curfew imposed after Gray’s death.
The attorneys for the defense in these cases have sought to have the trial moved out of Baltimore. They argue that publicity surrounding the case and the prospect of additional civic unrest could influence the jurors’ decision. The jurors’ familiarity with the case tends to support the first part of this claim. Reports that protesters’ chanting could be heard inside the courtroom tends to support the second part.
There’s also a question as to whether Judge Williams will be completely impartial. Before he became a judge, Williams specialized in investigating and prosecuting police misconduct cases for the federal government.
Is it just a coincidence that a judge with this unique background was assigned to these high profile cases, the outcome of which might well affect the tranquility of Baltimore? I don’t know. Administrative Judge W. Michel Pierson has not responded to questions about how he selected Williams to oversee the Gray cases.
The reviews of Williams the prosecutor are mixed. Former Washington, D.C., police officer Lawrence Holland was prosecuted three times by Williams in a 2001 brutality case and eventually pleaded guilty. He believes Williams was overzealous in prosecuting his case and says that if he were a defendant he’d want “to move [the] trial to another judge.”
Holland presumably is not an objective observer. However, I think any reasonable attorney would be apprehensive, other things being equal, about trying a police misconduct case before a judge who once, the words of a colleague, was “basically on a tour of the eastern United States” assisting with police misconduct cases.
On the other hand, an attorney who defended a police misconduct case prosecuted by Williams described him as aggressive but ethical during the trial. Whether this means that anti-police bias won’t enter into Williams’ rulings and behavior in the Gray cases is, I think, anyone’s guess.