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Prosecutors say Nero “needlessly risked” Freddie Gray’s life

Police Officer Edward Nero (right) leaving Courthouse East on lunch break.
P. Kenneth Burns
Police Officer Edward Nero (right) leaving Courthouse East on lunch break.

During opening statements, Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow told Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams that Officer Edward Nero disregarded his police training when he chased Freddie Gray and arrested him without probable cause, and was callously indifferent to the 25-year-old's wellbeing when he failed to secure him in a seatbelt.

Schatzow spent about 20 minutes laying out the state's argument.

Nero, the second officer to stand trial, is facing second degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office charges stemming from Gray's arrest last year. Gray died a week later from a broken neck suffered in the back of a police van.

Schatzow told Williams, who will decide the case, that Gray's arrest was unlawful and that Nero, who prosecutors say along with two other officers chased Gray, secured him in cuffs and loaded him into the van, should never have touched the man.

Legal analyst and former prosecutor Warren Alperstein says that shows prosecutors are focusing on the snippet of time when handcuffs were placed on Gray as the basis for the assault charge against him.

“That small window of after they detained him,” he said,  “the state argues that they immediately searched Freddie Gray searched Freddie Gray instead of doing what the law says to do which is a frisk; just a simple pat down frisk of the outer clothing.”

Prosecutors also say Nero acted in a reckless manner when he failed to buckle Gray into a seatbelt.

Schatzow argues that Nero did not help Gray that day.  In fact, he said Nero “needlessly risked Mr. Gray’s life” and did not do anything to keep him safe.

But Nero’s attorney, Marc Zayon, told Judge Williams that his client cares deeply about helping people, and acted in accordance with his police training and best judgment when he and two other officers chased Gray.

Zayon told Williams that Nero wasn't directly involved in arresting Gray, and didn't touch the man until after he'd already been placed in handcuffs and taken into custody by another officer.  He added his client helped Gray when Gray asked for an inhaler; calling upon training he received as a paramedic back home in New Jersey; where he decided that he wanted to do more to help people and became a cop.

Zayon said Nero didn't belt Gray because the man was putting the officers at risk by "passively and actively resisting arrest, banging in the wagon, kicking the wagon." Zayon added that it was the wagon driver's responsibility to belt a passenger, not Nero's.

Baltimore Police Cpt. Martin Bartness, was the first witness called by the state.  He told Williams that the department's general orders say that officers are required to buckle prisoners into seat belts when they're being transported, and that the language allowing for an officer to use his discretion as to whether to use the belt was eliminated when the policy was updated April 9 of last year.

But under cross examination, Bartness conceded that officers must use their judgment and discretion each and every day on the job, and that a general order is a policy, and not a law.

Zayon, using a hypothetical, asked Bartness if an officer filling out a required form happened to see a robbery out of the corner of his eye, what should that officer do.

Bartness said “I hope the officer would go after the robber.”

Judge Williams also saw pictures of the van that transported Gray and a video demonstration of how someone in handcuffs and leg restraints can move around in a police van.

University of Maryland Law Professor Doug Colbert, who has been observing the trials, said both sides could gain something from the video.

“The prosecution wanted to show that there was room for a police officer to place someone inside the van; that the individual could move around meaning that he would be able to be seat belted,” Colbert said.

“The defense on the other hand is going to say it’s a very crowded space and it would have been more difficult for the officer to seat belt.”

Prosecutors concentrated on Nero’s training and whether he received the general order if he received the order requiring detainees be seat belted. They repeated many of the arguments from the trial of Officer William Porter last fall, arguing that Nero should have known about the requirement.

Baltimore Police IT Director Andrew Jaffee testified that Nero received the order, but said he doesn’t know if Nero opened the email. It is also not clear if Nero was trained on transporting prisoners.

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.
Associated Press