Testimony has concluded in the case of Caesar Goodson, Jr., the police officer who drove the van that held Freddie Gray. The defense rested on Friday without putting Goodson on the stand. Closing arguments will take place on Monday, with a verdict from the judge (Goodson waived his right to a jury trial) expected later in the week.
Goodson faces the most serious charges of any defendant in this matter, including a second-degree depraved-heart murder count. The reporting of the Baltimore Sun suggests that the prosecution failed to present a strong case against him.
The murder count seems to have fallen apart entirely. It is predicated on the view that Goodson gave Gray “a rough ride.” In other words, he drove around recklessly, causing the injuries that killed Gray.
But the State apparently failed to present any evidence that Goodson gave Gray a rough ride. Neill Franklin, a retired state trooper who once oversaw training for the Baltimore Police Department, testified that rides should be smooth and if they aren’t there is a risk the prisoner will be injured. However, he admitted that he couldn’t say for sure that Gray got a rough ride.
Furthermore, Detective Michael Boyd, another witness called by the State, testified under cross-examination that he saw nothing in the videos to suggest that the van took an abrupt path. (Donta Allen, who was arrested later and placed into the back of the van with Gray, told investigators last year that he had a “smooth ride.”)
David Jaros, a University of Baltimore law professor who heard the evidence, told the Baltimore Sun that prosecutors “seem to have overpromised” in saying that they would show that Goodson gave Gray a rough ride. That’s putting it kindly, I think. Jaros added that “without the rough ride, it’s hard to get to the mental state of wanton and reckless disregard for human life necessary for depraved-heart murder.”
It is, of course, the judge’s view that ultimately matters. The Sun reports that Judge Barry Williams has already questioned whether prosecutors presented evidence to prove their theory that Goodson gave Gray a rough ride.
The State’s other charges against Goodson are predicated on the view that (1) Gray manifested injuries that should have prompted a call for medical help and (2) Goodson should have seen to it that Gray was belted-in. As to the first theory, Judge Williams has questioned whether Gray showed such injuries.
This leaves the seat-belting issue, which has also featured prominently in the two previous Freddy Gray trials (William Porter and Edward Nero). The prosecution wants to pin responsibility on Caesar for the failure to secure Gray with a seat belt, on the theory that Gray was in the custody of the van driver. Yet during closing arguments in the Nero case, the prosecutor told the judge that Gray was in the custody of multiple officers, not just Goodson’s as the van driver.
Judge Williams denied a motion by Goodson’s attorneys to allow these statements by prosecution into evidence. He said that the closing arguments in Nero’s trial had been freewheeling discussion.
Judge Williams was there, so he would know. Yet, he does seem to be allowing the prosecution to talk with a forked tongue.
Quite apart from the Nero closing argument, the prosecution’s seat belt theory may be problematic. Nero testified that Gray was “very passive-aggressive,” was screaming and yelling, and then “violently” shook the van once placed inside. Using the vernacular of the day, Nero described the back of the van as a “hostile environment.” It seems, then, that considerable force might have been required to buckle Gray up and that doing so posed a risk to the officers.
In addition, John Ryan, a former police officer who now serves as an expert police witness, testified that it was reasonable for Goodson to have deferred to the actions of other officers who did not put Gray in a seat belt. Consistent with what the prosecution told the judge in the Nero case, Ryan said that at each stop, other officers were present and took active roles in assessing what to do with Gray.
Judge Williams struck the testimony of a police officer who provided training to officers in traffic safety. She said that her lesson plan did not include teaching officers to buckle up prisoners in vans. However, she wasn’t sure that she personally provided Goodson’s training.
Two defense attorneys who are not involved in the trial but who have observed it told the Sun that the State put on a weak case. One of them expressed surprise that the prosecution did not take the opportunity to present rebuttal witnesses after the defense rested.
The State’s case against Goodson does seem weak, perhaps surprisingly so. I had once thought that Goodson was in greater jeopardy than the Sun’s reporting suggests.
But cases aren’t tried in the newspapers. The judge will have his say soon.