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Nero Not Guilty

The trial of police Officer Edward Nero is scheduled to begin Monday, but lawyers from both sides have asked state appellate courts to step in and review rulings from Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams.
Baltimore Police
The trial of police Officer Edward Nero is scheduled to begin Monday, but lawyers from both sides have asked state appellate courts to step in and review rulings from Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams.
The trial of police Officer Edward Nero is scheduled to begin Monday, but lawyers from both sides have asked state appellate courts to step in and review rulings from Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams.
Credit Baltimore Police
Police Officer Edward Nero

Baltimore Police Officer Edward Nero was acquitted Monday by Circuit Judge Barry Williams of all charges against him in the Freddie Gray case. 

Nero was indicted on second degree assault, reckless endangerment and two counts of misconduct relating to last year’s death of Freddie Gray from a broken neck suffered while in police custody.

Williams took about twenty minutes to explain his reasoning.

He rejected each of the prosecution’s arguments that Nero acted illegally from the time he joined in the initial call for a foot chase from Lt. Brian Rice to the second stop of a police van when Gray was to be shackled.

The state argued Nero was referring to Officer Garrett Miller and himself when he told investigators that “We” arrested Gray.

But Williams said Baltimore officers often speak as a collective out of habit.

The state said Nero should have asked Rice why he was chasing Gray.  And that he should have asked Gray what was going on.

But Williams said Nero had no duty to do so. 

Prosecutors charged that the assault occurred when Nero arrested Gray. But Williams cited the testimony of two prosecution witnesses – Miller and Brandon Ross, who was with Gray the day of the arrest – who said Nero did not arrest Gray.

Ross said that it was another bike officer, and Miller said he was the one who made the arrest.

Williams also found that Nero did not act recklessly.  And there was no evidence presented that Nero was required to put Gray in a seatbelt.

Overall, Williams said Nero acted as any reasonable, thinking officer would, not with the malicious intent of harming anyone on April 12, 2015, the day of Gray’s arrest.

The crowd in the courtroom remained quiet as the verdict was read, under the orders of a sheriff’s deputy who had warned against so much as a “gasp.”

When Williams finished, he quickly adjourned the court.

No surprises

Many legal observers said they weren’t surprised.

Warren Alperstein, a former city prosecutor who sat through the entire trial, said he  “never, frankly, believed that the evidence was there to convict him of any of the charges.”

Alperstein said the judge made it abundantly clear that any officer in Nero’s position would not be expected to be responsible for placing Gray in a seatbelt.

“Judge Williams alluded to the fact that it would have been a superior, Lt. Rice, to address that seatbelt in the back of the wagon,” he said.

Defense Attorney J. Wyndal Gordon said Judge Williams’ reasoning was sound and cannot be challenged.  He added it was “troubling” that two state witnesses—Miller and Ross--benefited the defense.

“It was problematic and it had a lasting effect; that’s something that the judge emphasized in his opinion that testimony of Mr. Ross was corroborated by those offering testimony by police,” said Gordon.

Nonetheless, Gordon added the prosecution presented the best case it could and that there were weaknesses in the case from the very beginning.

University of Maryland Law Professor Doug Colbert commended prosecutors for bringing the case forward.

“To allow the public the transparency to understand police practices in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood stands a much better chance of the necessary reforming of those practices that will provide protection for prisoners in police custody,” he said.

Gray died a week after his arrest from injuries suffered in the back of the police van.that was taking him to the Western District police station.

Alperstein said the charges caused a chilling effect for other police officers.

“Because so many officers are worried that despite their acting in good faith to detain a suspect believed to be involved in criminal activity,” he added.  “The fear is that if the officer is wrong, they can still be prosecuted.”

Nightmare Over?

Nero’s attorney, Marc Zayon, said in a statement that his nightmare is over.

Zayon said that State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby rushed to charge him as well as the other five officers “completely disregarding the facts of the case” and the law.

And he said he hopes Mosby will re-evaluate and dismiss the remaining cases.

Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police, agreed.

In a statement, he said she “seized a political opportunity” and “destroyed six lives” while demolishing “the relationship between [City Police] and [the state’s attorney’s office.”

While the criminal trial might be over, the internal investigation is ongoing.

Baltimore Police said Nero will remain in on administrative duties until the department’s investigation is complete.  And that will not be done until the remaining trials are over.

Community reaction

Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore City NAACP, was disappointed and said she was concerned about the lack of training Nero received.

During the trial, Nero’s lawyers argued that his training was cut short and that it’s not clear if he knew about a change in department policy that required suspects to be seat belted in police vehicles.

“No officer should be in the street, especially in an African-American neighborhood, chasing young black boys and men and not have ample training to do the things they’re doing,” she said  “It’s just almost like vigilante kind of action.”

The Rev. Westley West, one of the protesters outside the courthouse, was frustrated by the verdict. He questioned whether or not any officers will be held accountable.

“How comes there’s only accountability when somebody else commits a crime, said West.  “But there’s not accountability in the system commits a crime.”

But Billy Murphy, attorney for the Gray family, said Judge Williams acted fairly and should be commended for “not bending to the tremendous pressure” from the black community in particular.

“I want to also commend him for doing a thorough and workman like job in analyzing each part of the relevant evidence,” Murphy continued, “and analyzing, for the public’s benefit, why that evidence did not measure up to proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Williams, an African-American, was appointed to the bench in 2005 and retained his seat in the 2006 election. Murphy pointed out that it was the black community that kept Williams on the bench.

“He has done a spectacular job in almost every case he’s ever handled. And he’s continues to show a level of competence that’s well above the average judge.”

The state’s attorney’s office has not issued a statement reacting to the judge’s verdict.  There is still a gag order in effect for the remaining five cases.

Officer Caesar Goodson, who drove the van that transported Gray, is the next officer to stand trial. It is scheduled for June 6.

Goodson is charged with second degree depraved heart murder, involuntary manslaughter, second degree assault, gross negligent manslaughter by vehicle, criminal negligent manslaughter by vehicle and misconduct in office.

He is also the only officer who did not give a statement to prosecutors.

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.