BALTIMORE — A few dozen journalists and members of the public lined either side of the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse on Thursday. Circuit Judge Barry Williams was set to rule later that day on whether or not the Freddie Gray case would be tried outside of Baltimore. Just after 8 a.m., half an hour before the circuit court opened, a protester named Ryan Arrendell arrived carrying a sign stating that the six police officers indicted for their alleged involvement in the April death of Freddie Gray, who died from a severed spine in late April following a coma stemming from alleged reckless treatment by police officers and whose death sparked days of riots in Baltimore, should be tried in the city.
Officers from the Sheriff’s Department moved her from the lines assembled near the media staging area to the corner of the street. Armored police vehicles and officers donning riot gear dotted the streets approaching the courthouse as a helicopter flew overhead and security ushered reporters into the building. As the hearing started, just after 9:30 a.m., police officers surrounded and arrested Arrendell for standing on the sidewalk.
The previous night, activist Rev. Westley West was arrested and indicted on the charge of attempting to incite a riot during a protest outside of the previous week’s hearings in which Judge Williams ruled against the defense motion to recuse State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and her office from the case; he also ruled that all six officers would be tried separately. The police department released video footage of the alleged incident involving West, but it did not appear to show more than a small group of protesters marching through streets near the courthouse.
The police used unrest expected at the hearing, which has only seemed apparent in statements made by interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, to justify armored vehicles, riot gear inside and outside of the building, and the further limiting of demonstrators’ movements. Following the arrest of Arrendell, Davis, who was present at the courthouse, explained that he could not allow “small actions” to go “unabated.”
During the hearing, Ivan Bates, counsel to Sgt. Alicia White, the second-highest ranking officer involved in the Gray case, argued for the defense. He began and closed with statements made by State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, claiming that they indicated the State’s Attorney’s Office for Baltimore felt pressure due to social unrest to quickly indict the six officers represented in the courtroom, and that that same pressure would also be felt by potential jurors.
Bates also argued that media constantly inundated Baltimore citizens with news and speculation about the Gray case. He further noted the leaking of the medical examiner’s report to the Baltimore Sun that named Gray’s death a homicide; public statements made by Donta Allen, who rode in the police van with Gray; and the $6.4 million settlement approved on Wednesday in the civil suit between the Gray family and the City of Baltimore.
The defense continued to argue that an activist had appeared on television encouraging a voter drive so juries would become more representative of the communities whose members were most likely to face trial. Judge Williams took issue with the extrapolation of this statement to the greater Baltimore area, but also chastised State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s chief deputy Michael Schatzow for later referring to this activist as a “knucklehead” in his arguments for the prosecution.
Mostly, however, Bates reiterated the previous week’s assertions that Mosby’s May 1 press conference announcing the six officers’ indictment in the Freddie Gray case constituted the “source of resentment against the officers” and had somehow irreversibly biased public opinion in such a way that those officers could never receive a fair trial in Baltimore. He insisted that residents of the city “were there, … they had to deal with the National Guard” during the protests of late April and early May, in which Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake instituted a curfew during a State of Emergency. According to the defense, Baltimore’s citizenry would be forced to consider that situation even as unbiased jurors — an assumption repeatedly criticized by Judge Williams, who jumped in on Bates’ argument to say, “That is your true feeling.”
The State’s Attorney’s Office proceeded to argue in rebuttal that it would be premature to move the case prior to attempting to select six impartial juries, via voir dire, out of the roughly 300,000 registered voters in Baltimore. Schatzow called the leak of the medical examiner’s opinion “outrageous” and “wrong,” but nevertheless explained that the statement of charges against the officers was part of public record and did not constitute publicity. He also noted that the civil settlement approved on Wednesday explicitly divested from any notion of guilt, and was instead “a compromise” between the city and Gray’s family, and that the tax dollars from which the settlement originates do not implicate city taxpayers enough to bias their opinions. Nevertheless, he continued, any potential bias would come out in voir dire.
In cases cited by the defense supporting the removal of trials prior to voir dire, Schatzow went on, “publicity was entirely one-sided, … and that is simply not the case here.” In particular, he noted the Washington Post’s recent interview with a defendant, Ofc. William Porter, and the Baltimore Sun’s “attacks” on the State’s Attorney’s Office.
The prosecution countered the defense’s “insulting” allegations that Baltimore residents would be swayed from having lived in the city during the riots, saying, “as terrible as they were, [the riots] were confined to a very small geographic region of the city” and that the majority of residents were simply “inconvenienced” by them.
In closing, Schatzow pointed out that the cases for the Boston Marathon bombing and D.C. sniper were both tried in the jurisdictions from which they originated, claiming that these situations proved the ability of voir dire to solve issues of bias and prevent carnival atmospheres in courtrooms. “Justice isn’t vengeance,” he said.
Following a rebuttal from the defense, in which Bates used florid language to describe how protesters “circled the jail” while the defendants went through Central Booking, Judge Williams called for a half hour’s recess.
Upon reconvening the hearing, he explained that the defense had not met the burden of proving an irretrievably biased jury pool nor the potential for an unfair trial. He also stated that publicity and information about the case was all over the city, state, country and world, and continued with a description of how the news cycle has become constant and is vastly different from that of the 1950s and 1960s, when the precedents for removal cited by the defense generally occurred.
Williams ruled that voir dire would be the appropriate way to handle potential bias in the juror pool, and that Baltimore’s “citizens are not such a monolithic group” incapable of making decisions alone when presented with information. In discussing this, Williams explained that the defense’s argument rests on many assumptions, including that potential jurors would all lie under oath about their opinions and histories.
At this stage, Williams concluded, juror selection will be at least attempted in the City of Baltimore.
Upon hearing the announcement outside the courthouse, several dozen protesters erupted in cheers while some police officers and members of the media surrounded them and more stood on every sidewalk as protesters chanted, “All night! All day! We gon’ fight for Freddie Gray!”
The trials of the six officers charged in Gray’s death are currently set to begin October 13.