Baltimore homicide charges could face swift initial court test

Demonstrators calling for social, economic and racial justice march in New York May 1, 2015. — Reuters pic
Demonstrators calling for social, economic and racial justice march in New York May 1, 2015. — Reuters pic

BALTIMORE, May 2 — The chief Baltimore prosecutor, who came out swinging yesterday with charges against six police officers in the death of a 25-year-old man, could be quickly asked to disclose some of the potential evidence she has collected.

At a news conference yesterday, Marilyn Mosby accused the officers of illegally arresting Freddie Gray, placing him in a police van without a seatbelt and with his legs shackled and his hands cuffed, and then ignoring his pleas for medical help. Mosby charged the officer who drove the van with second-degree murder and the others with lesser charges, including manslaughter.

Defendants charged with serious crimes in Maryland are generally entitled to request a preliminary hearing, at which prosecutors must present enough material to convince a judge they had probable cause to bring charges, lawyers experienced in Maryland criminal law said. Under Maryland‘s criminal code, such requests must be filed within 10 days of a defendant’s first court appearance.

But a preliminary hearing is by no means a certainty. Defendants may waive their right to preliminary hearings. Or the prosecutor could decide to ask a grand jury to indict the officers in addition to the charges she filed, in which case the law does not guarantee a defendant’s right to a preliminary hearing.

Still, such a proceeding, if held, would be the first of many opportunities for defence lawyers to challenge the state’s evidence before a judge.

In the meantime, the Fraternal Order of Police, Baltimore City Lodge No. 3, has already launched a non-courtroom defence of the officers, saying they were only doing their jobs and were not responsible for Gray’s death.

In pre-trial proceedings, the officers might object to the use of any statements they gave to investigators, on the grounds that they were involuntary; or they might try to contest physical evidence about Gray’s ride in the police van, lawyers not connected to the case told Reuters in interviews.

Another possible pre-trial tactic by the officers might be to ask a court to move any possible trial outside the city of Baltimore by questioning whether the defendants could get a fair trial in the city, the lawyers said.

Some of the lawyers said they were surprised Mosby decided to file the charges as swiftly as she did, two weeks after Gray’s death, given the need to analyse eyewitness testimony, video, and forensic and medical evidence.

“This indictment was issued with breath-taking speed given what appeared to be a complex criminal investigation,” said Paul Callan, a former New York City homicide prosecutor.

The quick action could be explained by Mosby’s having thought the evidence was really clear, said University of Maryland law professor David Gray, who is not related to Freddie Gray.

Mosby campaigned to be elected city prosecutor on a platform that included holding police officers accountable, David Gray said, but he does not think politics drove her decision to charge the officers.

“It would be a sad thing if a prosecutor were bringing charges based solely on political considerations, and at this point, I don’t see any evidence that’s what’s going on here,” he said.

Mosby, 35, took office in January. The daughter and granddaughter of police officers, she was a city prosecutor in Baltimore for five years and then an insurance company lawyer before her election.

Baltimore’s police union has asked Mosby to appoint a special prosecutor for the case, saying she is too close to a lawyer who represents Freddie Gray‘s family. The union also questioned whether Mosby’s marriage to a member of the Baltimore city council could be a conflict, since his political career could be affected by the outcome of the case. Mosby rejected the union’s request.

The rapid decision to charge was all the more remarkable given what prosecutors have done in other US cases of police-related deaths, said Angela Davis, a professor at American University Washington College of Law.

Often, she noted, prosecutors drag their feet in such cases, but not Mosby. “It was her choice to make this case her priority, and she was able to do it quickly.” — Reuters

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