BALTIMORE, May 13 — A Baltimore police officer went on trial today in the case of Freddie Gray, an African American who died last year while in custody, sparking riots and looting in this gritty city.
The death of Gray became part of a wider debate in the United States over alleged police brutality.
The current trial, involving Officer Edward Nero, is the second related to Gray’s death. Another trial last year ended in a hung jury and a mistrial was declared.
Nero is among six officers being tried separately in this Atlantic port city. He is accused of second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.
Gray, 25, had been picked up on April 19, 2015 after fleeing at the sight of police and suffered a snapped spine while being transported unrestrained in the back of a Baltimore police van.
In today’s trial, attention focused quickly on why officers did not put a seat belt on Gray, as per regulations for transporting detainees.
Since he was not restrained, Gray bounced around in the back of the van, hitting the walls.
The fact that Gray was not wearing a belt seemingly helps the defence argument that the death was an accident.
But it could also help the argument that Baltimore police treat suspects roughly when they transport them.
“Police procedure do not allow what these officers did,” said Michael Schatzow, chief deputy state’s attorney.
Defense attorney Marc Zayon described Nero as a conscientious police officer and said Gray was not restrained because he was moving around so much.
Gray was “passively and actively resisting arrest, banging in the wagon, kicking the wagon,” Zayon said.
And in any case it was up to the driver of the van, not Nero, to decide whether to put a belt on Gray, the lawyer said.
Nero, who has not been jailed, chose to be tried by a judge rather than by a jury. The judge is black, as are two-thirds of the people of Baltimore.
The trial is expected to last two weeks.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys are under a gag order barring them from speaking with the press about the case.
The police officers involved in the case—three white and three African Americans, including a woman—claim Gray’s death was an accident.
No one has yet been convicted in Gray’s death.
The city of Baltimore agreed in September to pay US$6.4 million (RM25.76 billion) in a settlement with Gray’s family, part of a string of seven-figure payouts by cities to avoid wrongful death lawsuits brought by the estates of those killed against authorities potentially liable for the death.
Gray’s death reignited already searing discontent over police tactics following a series of high-profile cases of unarmed black men killed by police.
It sparked days of mass protests, riots and looting in Baltimore, just a short drive from the nation’s capital of Washington. — AFP