Van driver chooses bench trial in Gray case

Posted at 7:46 AM, Jun 06, 2016

Officer Caesar Goodson entered Courthouse East Monday morning to change the way he will be tried.

In a surprise move, Goodson chose a bench trial. The wagon driver followed Officer Edward Nero's lead, likely hoping for the same outcome from Judge Barry Williams.

"After Nero was acquitted by Judge Williams, the precedent was set that we now have an acquittal. Before with Officer Porter it was just a hung jury, but now the stakes have changed a little bit," said attorney Warren Alperstein who’s been following this case.

And the stakes have changed with this trial.

Officer Goodson is the most seriously charged as he faces second degree murder, assault, reckless endangerment, misconduct and three manslaughter charges.

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Relying on Williams for a verdict removes the emotional response a jury may have of the officer's involvement regardless of fact.

"You're absolutely taking the emotion out of the equation,” defense attorney Warren Brown said, “In fact the state had hoped that the emotional aspect of this matter might sway the jury and that was something that they lost today."

The state also lost what some attorneys following this case say was a key statement made by Officer Porter.

Porter told a detective early in the investigation that he heard Gray say he couldn't breathe while he and Goodson checked on him in the van at stop four.

It was a statement the medical examiner relied on to rule Gray's death a homicide, that Goodson willfully ignored Gray's plea resulting in depraved heart murder.

But since the statement was not recorded as part of Porter’s formal interview, it was merely jotted down in the detective's notes during a brief phone call, Judge Williams ruled it is hearsay and therefore not admissible.

It is a ruling some attorneys say removes the “callous disregard” needed to prove or declare Gray’s death a homicide by the medical examiner.

"Well now what you have is there is no evidence that Officer Goodson was told by Officer Porter that Freddie says, I cannot breathe and so the basis of her findings is now evaporated," Brown said.

Others following this case feel the state has other options along the way to prove Freddie Gray was in trouble and that Goodson had to have known it.

What is more concerning they say is a second bench trial.

While well within the officer's right, the optics of it may be troubling to some following this case.

"It deprives the community of being represented through a jury and having decisive role in the outcome of this case," said University of Maryland Law Professor Doug Colbert.

Still, a bench trial is an established right for any defendant in the state of Maryland; Officer Goodson’s will begin Thursday at 9:30 in the morning.

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