Monday, December 14, 2015
This morning, I arose uncharacteristically early—6:00 A.M., so that I could witness the closing arguments in the first of the “Freddie Gray” trials. An old friend of mine had invited me to tag along, and I accepted the invitation, not knowing what to expect of the proceedings. I only knew that I wanted to record what I witnessed and try to make sense of what I saw and heard, especially in contrast to what I’ve been reading and watching in the newspaper and TV reporting.
We arrived so early (~7:15 A.M.) that we were the first in line outside Courthouse East. On the other side of the courthouse steps, the media folks—reporters and sketch artists—were already lining up to enter the building. My friend explained that we would need a ticket issued by a sheriff in order to enter the courtroom.
At 8:30, we began to enter; the media folks first, and then the public. I thought I knew the security drill from my previous jury duty summonses. So I opened my purse as I climbed the stairs into the lobby and put my keys and change in the purse so it could be checked and I could walk through the metal detector without setting it off. But I wasn’t quite ready for the command to remove my belt! (It was a cloth belt with a metal buckle.) I became so flustered that I couldn’t find my entrance ticket and despaired that I’d be denied entrance. Luckily, I had had the foresight to put the ticket in my purse.
Shortly before 9:00 A.M., we were allowed to enter the relatively small courtroom where the closing arguments in the trial of Officer William Porter would soon begin. We sat about three rows away from the jury, directly behind the contingent of media sketch artists. Watching their techniques and progress was interesting in itself, as we waited for the proceedings to begin.
Finally, the “All Rise” command was given, as the presiding judge, Barry G. Williams, entered the courtroom. It would be another few minutes before the jury was ushered in.
Judge Williams first read the Jury Instructions to the 12 jurors, explaining (1) that they must reach a unanimous decision on each of the four charges against Officer Porter; (2) that the State must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, relying only on courtroom evidence (physical and circumstantial) and not on any independent research or on any extraneous verbiage they heard in the courtroom (e.g., comments, disallowed testimony or questions and answers that may have occurred from anyone—including the judge himself); and (3) other instructions pertinent to the case. Each juror was given a written copy of the instructions.
The Prosecution’s Closing Arguments
Prosecutor Janice Bledsoe then launched into her closing argument by asking the jury how long it takes to click a seatbelt and call a medic, then answering her own question—3 or 4 seconds. I was at first taken aback because there was no preamble. But I soon realized that she was addressing the jury, which has been listening to all the testimony in the trial and therefore did not need to make an introduction, as we might see on “courtroom” television. She proceeded to close her case, highlighting various details of the timeline of Freddie Gray’s ultimately fatal encounter with the police on April 12, 2015.
It was hard to follow the chronology, but in roughly 70 minutes, Ms. Bledsoe clearly summarized the facts, circumstances, and nuances of her case for each of the four counts: Involuntary Manslaughter, 2nd Degree Assault, Misconduct of Office, and Reckless Endangerment.
Among the many questions I’ve had about this case are these two: (1) Why was Mr. Gray’s transport to jail so protracted—why so many circuitous stops along the way? and (2) How in the world did Mr. Gray sustain the catastrophic spinal injuries during the transport? Although these question were not answered to my satisfaction during the closing arguments, they have been addressed in local newspaper reports, and I suspect that more information will come from the ensuing trials of the other 5 police officers indicted in the death of Freddie Gray. [For more details of the proceedings, see http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/freddie-gray/bs-md-porter-trial-closing-monday-20151214-story.html and check out other related stories from our only mainstream local daily newspaper].
The Defense’s Closing Arguments
In contrast to the prosecution, the closing argument by Defense attorney Joseph Murtha was 90 minutes of generalized, disparaging, editorialized rebukes of the prosecution’s findings, after initially proclaiming the death of Freddie Gray a “horrific tragedy,” but one that was not precipitated by his client. I’ll admit to my own prejudice against Mr. Murtha’s “style,” having previously seen and read about his frantic attempts to bash the credibility of the Assistant State Medical Examiner, Carole Allen’s, testimony about Mr. Gray’s spinal and neck injuries. Today, he repeated this putdown of her as engaging in a “rush to judgment” because she completed her autopsy a day after Mr. Gray’s death. Yet in the next breath, he inferred that because it took her 9 days to issue her final report, her word should not be relied upon.
But even more egregious than this was his resorting to a “meme” to characterize his perception of the “weakness” of the prosecution’s witnesses: “FEAR” (false evidence appears real), along with what I found to be a curious example; he cited his own first witness’s observation that if a person says “I can’t breathe,” the fact is that the person is breathing because he spoke. My reaction? He’s obviously never gotten the wind knocked out of him or experienced significant shortness of breath. In short, he tried to reduce nuanced statements to their literal basis. I found this insulting.
After watching these proceedings today, I had a mix of reactions and conclusions. First, I came away exhausted from the effort of sitting still and quiet for such extended periods of time (not unlike sitting in church, trying not to cough or make a distracting noise), Second, I deeply appreciated the members of the jury—a representative mix of Baltimore’s citizenry (both racially and gender-wise); at this late hour, their deliberations have begun, and I do not envy the weighty tasks they must complete.
Finally, I am mulling over the conclusion that my friend and I reached as we walked out of the courthouse: All of this could have been avoided if the police had simply not arrested Freddie Gray on April 12, 2015. The fact that Mr. Gray merely ran away when he saw policemen approaching him but had done nothing beyond that to attract their attention in the first place—and nothing illegal—should have given the police pause.
My hope is (1) that the jury follows Judge Williams’ instructions, no matter what they conclude, and (2) that the citizens of Baltimore react to the verdict without violence.