Justice Department won't bring charges against Baltimore officers in Freddie Gray case

The U.S. Department of Justice will not bring charges against Baltimore police officers in connection with the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from injuries sustained in police custody in 2015, the agency confirmed Tuesday.

The department issued a statement Tuesday evening that after “an extensive review of this tragic event, conducted by career prosecutors and investigators,” officials concluded that “the evidence is insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that the officers involved in Gray’s arrest “willfully violated” his civil rights.

“Accordingly, the investigation into this incident has been closed without prosecution,” the agency said.

The decision means no officers will be held criminally responsible for Gray’s death. The state previously filed local criminal charges against six officers in the case, but failed to secure a single conviction.

Former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Justice Department was conducting a criminal civil rights investigation into Gray’s death on April 27, 2015, the same day as Gray’s funeral and the eruption of rioting, looting and arson in Baltimore.

Lynch, who served under President Barack Obama, said at the time that the department would “continue our careful and deliberate examination of the facts in the coming days and weeks” to determine whether any officers should be charged with violating Gray’s civil rights.

Now, nearly two and a half years later and under the Trump administration, Justice Department investigators have concluded that no charges are warranted.

The agency said the evidence did not show Gray was given a “rough ride” in the back of a police transport van — a theory of state prosecutors — and did not prove that officers were aware that their failure to secure Gray with a seat belt put him in danger. Evidence did not show that officers knew he was injured and needed immediate medical care, the DOJ statement said.

The agency announced its decision Tuesday evening, several hours after The Baltimore Sun reported the decision based on sources familiar with the investigation.

Officials at the FBI and the Maryland U.S. attorney’s office referred questions to the Justice Department.

William H. “Billy” Murphy, the Gray family’s attorney, declined to comment. Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith also declined to comment.

Five officers still face internal discipline hearings related to the case.

Michael Davey, an attorney for the local police union, said he had not received notice of an official decision from the Justice Department as of Tuesday afternoon, but “we're obviously pleased” no charges will be filed.

“We only wish that the Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office would have done just as thorough an investigation before they brought their state charges,” Davey said. “If they would have done that, we believe they would have come to the same conclusion as the Department of Justice.”

According to prosecutors, Gray died after suffering a fatal spinal cord injury in the back of a Baltimore police transport van following his arrest on the morning of April 12, 2015.

Police accused Gray of running unprovoked in a high-crime area in West Baltimore and of being in possession of an illegal knife at the time of his arrest. He was handcuffed and shackled in the transport van, but not restrained by a seat belt.

Gray’s death a week later sparked widespread protests against police brutality in Baltimore. Clashes between police and civilians spiraled out of control on the day of his funeral, erupting into rioting that caused millions of dollars in damages. The city was put under a weeklong nightly curfew.

Days after the rioting, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby filed criminal charges against six police officers, ranging from misconduct in office and reckless endangerment to manslaughter and second-degree depraved heart murder.

All of the officers pleaded not guilty and none was convicted.

Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., Lt. Brian Rice and Officer Edward Nero were acquitted in bench trials before Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams. Mosby subsequently dropped the charges against Sgt. Alicia White, Officer Garrett Miller and Officer William Porter, citing the unlikely chance of a conviction with Williams scheduled to preside over their trials as well.

Porter had previously had a jury trial, which resulted in a hung jury and mistrial.

The Justice Department’s decision not to bring charges in the case was anticipated by many legal observers, particularly given Williams’ rulings at the state level, as federal civil rights cases have a higher standard for securing convictions.

To secure convictions in such cases, federal prosecutors must establish that an officer willfully violated a person's civil rights, which experts said is not an easy task.

When Mosby dropped the state charges against the remaining officers in July 2016, Justice Department leaders in the Obama administration issued a statement saying the agency had been "monitoring the state's investigation and trials" along with the FBI and the Maryland U.S. attorney’s office. The statement said the Justice Department would continue its “independent review of this matter, assess all available materials and determine what actions are appropriate, given the strict burdens and requirements imposed by applicable federal civil rights laws.”

President Donald Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have made comments skeptical of police reforms espoused by the Obama administration. In July, Trump attracted criticism — including from law enforcement — when he told a crowd of police officers during a speech in Long Island, N.Y., that they shouldn’t be “too nice” to suspects being loaded into police vehicles. A White House spokeswoman later said Trump was “making a joke.”

David Jaros, an associate professor of criminal law at the University of Baltimore, said Trump never inspired confidence that charges would be filed, but “even under the Obama administration, it was very unlikely that these cases would be pursued criminally.”

“This was a case that was very hard to prove, that was riddled with reasonable doubt,” Jaros said.

Separate from the criminal cases, two outside police agencies — in Montgomery and Howard counties — conducted an internal review of the officers’ actions that led to five of the officers being charged with violating internal Baltimore Police policies.

Those five face internal disciplinary trials this fall and winter. Three — Goodson, Rice and White — face termination from the force, while Miller and Nero face five days’ suspension without pay. Porter was not charged with violating any policies.

Mosby, citing those disciplinary hearings, said in a statement Tuesday, “Justice is always worth the price paid for its pursuit.”

Gray’s death caused city officials to invite the Justice Department into Baltimore to conduct a broader investigation into the police department. In August 2016, the DOJ released a scathing report that found widespread discriminatory and unconstitutional policing in Baltimore, particularly in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.

The Justice Department and Baltimore subsequently entered into a consent decree mandating sweeping reforms to the Police Department. That agreement was approved in federal court, and the two parties are in the process of selecting a federal monitor to oversee the reforms.

On Tuesday, Baltimore’s delegation to Congress — Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Reps. Elijah Cummings, John Sarbanes and Dutch Ruppersberger, all Democrats — issued a joint statement saying they were “disappointed by reports that DOJ will not seek justice for Freddie Gray, but we are not surprised.”

They accused the Trump administration of attempting to block police reform in Baltimore and called on it to support local reform efforts. The Justice Department declined to respond to their comments.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement Tuesday that Baltimore “desperately needs” systemic policing reforms that include mechanisms for holding officers accountable.

“We know that spines do not break without cause, and the DOJ and BPD’s credibility to make change a reality in Baltimore hinges not just on their ability to institute much needed reforms to police training, policies, and practices, but also on their success in bringing to justice officers who abuse their power and take the lives of innocent residents,” Ifill said. “The onus is now on the BPD to hold these officers accountable at their disciplinary trials this fall and winter. Baltimore will be watching.”

krector@baltsun.com

@rectorsun

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