BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Freddie Gray arresting officer Edward Nero was found not guilty on all counts by Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams Monday morning.
Nero faced charges of second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and two counts of misconduct in office.
Nero waived his right to a trial by jury. His bench trial began May 12 and final arguments were heard Thursday.
WJZ’s Ron Matz says the verdict announcement was attended by a group of Baltimore City police officers, most in plain clothes. After the verdict was read, they came up to Nero one by one, embracing him and patting him on the back. Nero was seen with tears in his eyes.
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Gray, a 25-year-old black man from the Sandtown area of Baltimore, died on April 19, 2015 of a spinal cord injury he sustained while in police custody.
His death set off more than a week of protests followed by looting, rioting and arson that prompted a citywide curfew.
Gray family attorney Billy Murphy spoke with WJZ outside the courtroom.
“I have to commend Judge Williams on not being influenced by public opinion,” Murphy said. “It’s a very, very difficult job to sit as a judge under these enormously stressful conditions, and once again Barry Williams has shown he is a fair and impartial man… He showed tremendous courage in ruling against public opinion.”
“I don’t think anybody should be upset with this verdict nor do I think anybody should have been elated about a guilty verdict,” he added. “Only the people who sat through this trial and heard all of the evidence have a right to have an opinion about whether his opinion was fair and whether or not it was warranted under the circumstances. So we should all understand that we all have opinions, but unless they’re based on the facts and all of the facts, those opinions are essentially irrelevant to this process.”
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake shared a similar sentiment in a statement she released shortly after the verdict was handed down.
“Today Judge Barry G. Williams found Officer Edward Nero not guilty of all criminal charges. This is our American system of justice and police officers must be afforded the same justice system as every other citizen in this city, state, and country. Now that the criminal case has come to an end, Officer Nero will face an administrative review by the Police Department. We once again ask the citizens to be patient and to allow the entire process to come to a conclusion. In the case of any disturbance in the city, we are prepared to respond. We will protect our neighborhoods, our businesses and the people of our city.”
Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 responded positively to the verdict shortly after it was announced.
According to WJZ’s Mike Schuh, who was outside the courthouse when the verdict came down, there was a huge “roar of disapproval” from protesters.
One of the people leading the charge was Rev. Wesley West.
“I’m angry because this is what we deal with, and when I say ‘we,’ we’re talking about the black community and I’m a part of and represent that community as well, it seems like we have no voice when it comes to these issues,” West said.
“When it comes to conversations like this, we’re not involved. This should have been a jury trial where the community had a voice in this case. Of course a system works in a system’s favor, that’s how I look at it. That judge represents the system, and the police officer represents a system, but they’re all one system working together. And again I don’t think case was actually tried fairly when it comes down the community being involved.”
Nero is one of six officers who was charged in relation to Gray’s death, and the second to be tried.
He left court under heavy guard moments after Judge Williams acquitted him of all charges.
“If he was found guilty I believe many officers would have been hesitant to do the right thing when it came time to deal with crime because they would be afraid to be prosecuted and that’s what the prosecution was trying to do,” said Nero’s father, Edward Nero Sr. “It’s not just a victory for my son, it’s a victory for all police officers including the other five.”
Officer William Porter’s trial ended in a hung jury and mistrial in December. He will be retried in September.
“I think to convict a police officer it requires very strong evidence,” University of Maryland Law Professor Doug Colbert told WJZ’s Linh Bui Monday. “Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is protection for every accused person, but there have been so few successful prosecutions of police officers … so it’s going to take a lot of evidence that an officer should be held criminally responsible.”
Four other officers — Officer Garrett Miller, Lt. Brian Rice, Sgt. Alicia White and Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. — have not yet been tried.
Goodson’s trial, which was already delayed once, is set to begin June 6. He was the driver of the van that transported Gray from the spot where he was arrested to the police station. When the van arrived at the Western District police station, Gray was already critically injured and unresponsive.
Goodson faces charges of second-degree depraved heart murder, manslaughter, second-degree assault, two counts of vehicular manslaughter and misconduct in office.
“Officer Goodson’s case, factually, is a very different case than this one and so Officer Goodson’s attorneys are going to be weighing heavily the question whether they want to go forward with a jury trial or whether they want to go forward with a bench trial,” Adam Ruther, an attorney with Rosenberg Martin Greenberg LLP, tells WJZ.
“This will certainly factor into their decision making as they have had a little bit of a glimpse at the way Judge Williams is looking at the case, but it certainly will not answer the question for them and that question is solely the defendant’s. The lawyers cannot make that decision for the defendant, they can only advise and help the defendant make that decision for himself.”