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Nero defense rests

Police Officer Edward Nero (center) walking into Courthouse East Wednesday for the fifth day of his trial.
P. Kenneth Burns
Police Officer Edward Nero (center) walking into Courthouse East Wednesday for the fifth day of his trial.

  A former training director for the Baltimore Police Department testified Wednesday there was “no possible way” an officer could safely buckle a suspect in the back of a police van.

Capt. Justin Reynolds, one of the last two defense witnesses in the trial of Officer Edward Nero, said an officer risked being assaulted if he tried.

Nero is one of six officers charged in the case of Freddie Gray, who died a week after his arrest in April 2015 from injuries suffered in the back of a police van.

Prosecutors have said Nero put Gray at risk by failing to buckle him in the back of the van. One of their witnesses demonstrated a technique for buckling a suspect into a seat.

But Reynolds said that technique was for putting suspects in squad cars. The seatbelts in the back of a van are different, he said, two hands to buckle a suspect in.

He also testified that it was the van driver’s responsibility to make sure detainees are belted in, not Nero’s. But he conceded on cross-examination that the van driver has to acknowledge that he received custody of a suspect.

The other defense witness, Officer Zachary Novak, a police academy classmate of Nero’s, said he saw the van shake from “side to side” and heard screaming from inside during its second stop, at Mount and Baker streets, on the way to the Western District station.

Novak, who has not been charged in the case, said he headed toward the 1700 block of Presbury Street, where Gray was arrested when he heard Lt. Brian Rice’s call of a foot chase and that Gray “looked upset” when he arrived.

Nero has been charged with assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.

Prosecutors have argued before Circuit Judge Barry Williams, who is trying the case without a jury, that Nero illegally pursued and arrested Gray April 12, 2015.

Defense attorneys have presented evidence since Friday that Nero did not arrest Gray.

Wednesday, they continued trying to ask questions about training but Williams sustained repeated objections from prosecutors, ruling the questions were either vague or didn’t focus on a specific point in time.

University of Baltimore Law School Professor David Jaros said the defense brought forward some “useful evidence” and that the trial will come down to “whether or not an officer was unreasonable.”

“Not just unreasonable, but unreasonable to the point that he would be grossly negligent so as to be criminally liable,” Jaros said.

Legal analyst and former prosecutor Warren Alperstein credited Nero’s attorneys, Marc Zayon and Allison Levine, for being able to make their point, even though prosecution objections were sustained.

“The bottom line in this is that a slight deviation from a general order – the argument would go by defense – is not a crime,” Alperstein said.

Closing arguments are scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday.  Judge Williams said he will issue his verdict Monday.

Copyright 2016 WYPR - 88.1 FM Baltimore

P. Kenneth Burns
Kenneth Burns is WYPR's Metro Reporter; covering issues that affect Baltimore City, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.