Jury selection began Monday in the first trial for Baltimore police officers who were involved in the April arrest of Freddie Gray, an African-American man whose death launched a series of violent protests that ripped apart a city. The jury selection process for Officer William Porter is crucial because it could determine whether it is possible to select impartial juries in the city for each of six officers charged in connection with Gray’s death. Lawyers for the officers have said it’s not possible; Judge Barry Williams decided to try.
Porter is facing charges of involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and assault in the death of Gray, who suffered massive injuries while in police custody after his arrest in April. Gray died a week later. Protests that had been mostly peaceful then turned ugly, with rioting, looting and arson rocking the city. Baltimore’s police chief was fired and “Justice for Freddie Gray” became the demonstrators’ battle cry. Gray’s case also prompted protests across the nation from demonstrators still outraged by the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.
The legal proceedings are expected to last until at least mid-December and will provide fresh details about how Gray suffered a severe spinal injury while being transported in a police van. It also could bring the first public account from one of the officers charged in the case, since Porter’s attorneys have said he will likely take the stand. Judge Barry G. Williams has told attorneys he expects at least 75 to 80 potential jurors to show up for screening on Monday.
It is unclear exactly how long it will take to seat a jury and when opening arguments will begin. Prosecutors are expected to argue that Gray was critically injured in the van because he was unbelted, with legs and arms restrained, during the drive. Prosecutors have said officers then ignored Gray’s pleas for medical help.
Defense attorneys, however, have said prosecutors rushed to judgment in filing charges against Porter and his colleagues. Porter’s attorneys will also likely rebut the medical examiner’s report that classified Gray’s death as a homicide, saying coroners relied too much on information from prosecutors to reach their conclusions.
Prosecutors have not detailed exactly how Gray was injured or the events leading up to it, but medical examiners wrote in an autopsy report obtained by the Baltimore Sun that Gray may have climbed to his feet and then fallen as the van was making a turn, accelerating or decelerating. Gray was taken to the hospital where he died on April 19. A week of protests followed his death and then some of the unrest turned violent in the wake of Gray’s funeral on April 27. Rocks were thrown at police, cars were burned, and a CVS was looted and set aflame. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called in the National Guard and a curfew was imposed. Calm eventually was restored but not before there was widespread damage in parts of the city.