Prosecutors argued Thursday that Lt. Brian Rice, as shift commander, had ultimate responsibility for keeping Freddie Gray safe in the back of a police van the day of his arrest, but that he failed to do so by not securing Gray with a seatbelt.
Outside of that, much of what Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow told Circuit Judge Barry Williams in his opening statements in Rice’s trial was similar to what he said in the trials of Officers Caesar Goodson and Edward Nero.
Prosecutors have said the officers risked Gray’s life by not following department policy – known as general orders – that required suspects where seatbelts while in transport vehicles.
Goodson and Nero were acquitted of all charges by Williams after their bench trials.
Rice, the highest ranking of six officers in the case, is charged with manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment and now a single count of misconduct. The state dropped one misconduct count – dealing with Gray’s initial detainment - before opening statements.
Rice’s Attorney, Chaz Ball, said Williams will have to decide if “a nine second assessment rises to the level of criminal neglect.” That’s the amount of time Rice spent in the van with Gray at Mount and Baker streets.
Ball asked Williams to look at “the totality” of what Rice had to deal with; narrowing them down to three C’s: The crowd witnessing the arrest, the combativeness of Gray and the confined space of the van.
Legal analysts say the state dropping the second misconduct charge was not a big deal.
“I took it as a sign that they felt they had insufficient evidence on that particular count,” said University of Maryland Law Professor Doug Colbert.
University of Baltimore Law Professor David Jaros said prosecutors must have “conceded that under the Supreme Court case - Illinois v. Wardlow – [officers] were allowed to chase Mr. Gray.”
Jaros and other legal analysts who have been following the trial say prosecutors will have to prove that Rice was aware that Gray would be in danger after he placed Gray in the back of the van.
But that may be challenging because Judge Williams ruled Tuesday that neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys could use some 4,000 documents tracing Rice’s training since he graduated from the police academy 17 years ago.
“At the end of the day, the question is whether or not [Rice] knew he needed to seatbelt somebody,” Jaros said. “The hardest thing for the state to prove in this case is that at the moment that the officer was in the van; he was consciously thinking about the risk he was placing Mr. Gray in.”