BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Officer Caesar Goodson, who was driving the police van inside which Freddie Gray suffered his fatal neck injury last April, has been found not guilty of second-degree “depraved heart” murder by Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams.
Goodson, 46, has also been found not guilty on charges of manslaughter, assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment.
Goodson waived his right to a trial by jury. His bench trial began June 9 and final arguments were heard Monday.
Gray, a 25-year-old black man from the Sandtown area of Baltimore, died of his injury on April 19, 2015. A week earlier, Baltimore City police officers put him in the back of Goodson’s van, handcuffed and shackled, but unrestrained by a seat belt.
His death set off more than a week of protests followed by looting, rioting and arson that prompted a citywide curfew.
After the verdict was read, protesters began chanting “Murderer!” over and over again outside the courthouse.
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE COURTROOM?
Inside court, with high security present, “People were quiet … There were a few people shaking their heads, some people who were emotionless,” WJZ’s Mike Hellgren reports.
The judge said that the evidence for conviction simply was not there, and that there was no way that Goodson would have known that Freddie Gray was injured until the van’s final stop at the Western district police station, which is where a medic was called.
The prosecution’s theory of the case did not fit the facts that they presented, which clearly troubled Judge Williams.
Williams also chided the state for using the term “rough ride,” calling it a highly-charged term that they failed to define.
RELATED: READ THE JUDGE’S FULL VERDICT
“I find it hard to believe that he would convict any of the officers in any of the four remaining trials to come,” Hellgren reports.
WJZ’s Ron Matz reports that Officer Edward Nero, who was found not guilty of all his charges by the same judge last month, was in the front row and was one of the first people to embrace Officer Goodson after the verdict was read, along with Goodson’s family and other officers.
Matz said Judge Williams spent a lot of time focusing on the state’s “rough ride” theory. He called that the centerpiece of the state’s case and also called that an inflammatory term that’s not to be taken lightly.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sent a statement out shortly after the verdict came down.
She urged city residents to “continue to respect the judicial process and the ruling of the court.”
Baltimore’s Democratic Mayoral candidate Catherine Pugh’s office made a similar plea.
“Protests are a vital part of democracy, but to destroy the homes and businesses many people have worked very hard to build is unacceptable,” the statement reads. “Although people may disagree with the verdict, it is important to respect each other and to respect our neighborhoods and our communities.”
Kevin Davis, Baltimore Police Commissioner, said he’s “pleased by the peaceful manner our residents have chosen to express their diverse opinions.”
“The Baltimore Police Department has taken many progressive steps to improve over the last year,” he added. “We will continue to adopt and implement policing practices consistent with the expectations of our community. We all have a leadership role to play at this moment. Thank you for doing your part to sustain the momentum of our ongoing progress.”
Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore City Branch of the NAACP, says she’s unhappy with the verdict.
“Everybody in Baltimore that lives in certain neighborhoods know exactly the definition of what a rough ride is…. A lot of them don’t die. But in this case, Freddie Gray is dead, and no one will pay for it,” she says.
NAACP president Cornell Brooks also weighed in.
“There is a long tradition, an ugly tradition of rough rides,” he said. “There’s a long tradition of a very troubled police department, and so the fact of the matter is this is a tragedy not found to be a crime by a judge, but it is a wake-up call to the city of Baltimore: With the new mayor, that police department has got to be upended.”
One local resident told WJZ’s Marcus Washington that he was really disappointed but not surprised, because the charges “required too much more evidence than they had.”
However, “something good came out of this,” he said. “And that’s the fact that it’s not going to be business as usual as far as the police department is concerned.”
Another resident told WJZ the charges were “a ploy” and that the system is rigged.
“Have you ever seen one of these officers on camera look nervous? No, because they already know what the outcome is.”
Attorney Billy Murphy spoke on the behalf of Freddie Gray’s parents.
“They also understand everybody else’s anger and frustration that no police officer has yet been brought to justice,” said Murphy.
LEGAL EXPERTS WEIGH IN
“Depraved heart murder is an unusual thing, it’s a kind of murder that a lot of people haven’t heard of,” attorney Adam Ruther of Rosenberg Martin Greenberg, LLP tells WJZ.
“To sum it up, it’s murder without the intent to kill. Normally in order to prove second-degree murder you have to prove the intentional killing of one human being by another. If you don’t have the intent but you have acts that raised to the level of extreme disregard for human life, things like firing a gun into a crowd of people, even though you didn’t intend to kill one specific person, doing that is so reckless it’s so irresponsible that the law says we’re going to hold you accountable as if if you had the specific intent to kill an individual. And so that’s what the state was trying to use in this case. And it’s an unusual application of the law, so it’s not entirely surprising that Judge Williams didn’t agree with the state’s theory of the case of extreme disregard for human life under these circumstances.”
“This was a tragic event and I think the uncertainty about what really happened is what has given rise to these officers being charged,” Warren Brown, a well-known Baltimore defense attorney, tells WJZ. “These cases are being vetted in the court by a very experienced judge … and so everybody is getting their day in court for there to be some scrutiny. The state has [tremendous] resources applied to this, they’ve had time to delve into this and discover what may or may not have happened, and as the judge indicated in his opinion, they came up woefully short in presenting the evidence. What they offered is that this is a tragedy and therefore someone should be held responsible, but that’s just not the way it works.”
“I don’t think [the verdict] was a huge shock,” University of Baltimore Law Professor David Jaros said. “At the end of the day it’s important for people to recognize this was not a question in the legal sense about whether or not Officer Goodson was unreasonable. The critical question ultimately came down to what was he aware of, did he know the danger that he was placing Mr. Gray in. It is no way an endorsement of Officer Goodson’s actions that he was acquitted today. It doesn’t mean an egregious thing wasn’t done. It doesn’t mean the policies weren’t broken, it doesn’t mean frankly that massive reforms don’t mean to be made. But it just means it was not a crime.”
“Across the country, officers have generally chosen judge trials and there has been criticism for that in concern that judges are sympathetic to the police. I don’t think anybody can say that’s what happened here. If you look at Judge Williams’ history and the way he handled himself in this case, I think frankly he followed the law and followed it closely and this was not an incident where sort of insiders managed the case and took it out of the community’s hand inappropriately,” Jaros added.
Goodson is one of six officers charged in relation to Gray’s death, and the third to be tried. Officer William Porter’s trial ended in a hung jury and mistrial in December, and Officer Edward Nero was found not guilty on all charges in May.
Porter will be retried in September.
Three other officers — Officer Garrett Miller, Lt. Brian Rice and Sgt. Alicia White — have not yet been tried.
Goodson has to appeal for back pay and could still lose his job after an internal police review.