BALTIMORE – Prosecutors introduced a new theory as a murder trial started for a police van driver charged in the death of Freddie Gray, a black man whose neck was broken in the back of the wagon.
Not only was Officer Caesar Goodson negligent when he didn’t buckle Gray into a seat belt, prosecutors said, he intentionally wanted to injure Gray by giving him a “rough ride” – blowing through a stop sign and making a sharp turn at such a high speed that he crossed a double yellow line. Gray – his hands cuffed and his legs shackled – was thrown helplessly against the rear compartment, the prosecutor said.
Goodson, 46, is facing second-degree murder, manslaughter, assault and other charges. Over the past year, prosecutors had hinted that Gray was subjected to such treatment. But the accusation during opening statements Thursday was the first time they said the driver meant to hurt Gray, whose death in April 2015 touched off the worst riots in Baltimore in decades.
A “rough ride” is police lingo for teaching someone a lesson by putting him in a police wagon without a seat belt and driving so erratically that he is thrown around.
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Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow said the state will produce a video to help prove their case, but introducing the new theory was surprising, experts said.
“From the inception of this case, the state’s theory had been the officers committed these crimes because of an omission: the failure to do certain acts, including using a seat belt and seeking medical assistance for Freddie Gray,” said Warren Alperstein, a Baltimore attorney who is uninvolved in the case but has observed nearly all legal proceedings. “It’s not inaction, it’s now action. But how do you determine speed from a video? Will the video show what the state promised it would?”
Goodson is the third officer to stand trial, and so far the state has yet to secure a conviction. The first trial, for Officer William Porter, ended in a mistrial in December. The judge acquitted the second officer last month.
It’s not the first time prosecutors have altered their theories in the case. Initially prosecutors said the three arresting officers were wrong to arrest Gray for having a legal folding knife and filed false imprisonment charges against them. Those charges didn’t make it past a grand jury and the state has since abandoned the knife issue at trial, opting instead for arguing about the legality of stopping suspects without probable cause.
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Alperstein said the rough ride could be another attempt to pivot.
“This is the first time a rough ride has been suggested,” he said. “It begs the question: Is this another example of the state adjusting its theory?”
Doug Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law who has watched all of the trials, said he was anticipating the state might allege a rough ride in the Goodson case, but said they’ll “need more of a history of the rough ride than just the video. They need to prove the injuries that occurred, and that Goodson was well aware of the danger.”
Schatzow was unequivocal in his accusation during opening statements.
“There was no good reason for the defendant not to belt him in, except to bounce him around,” he said.
Goodson attorney Andrew Graham flatly disputed the notion that Gray was deliberately bounced around, saying: “There was no rough ride. It simply didn’t happen.”
He said Gray’s injuries were self-inflicted when he stood up inside a moving vehicle and that officers “virtually never” belt prisoners in. Goodson is such a “slow and cautious” driver that he sometimes lulls his prisoners to sleep, he said.
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Graham said Goodson – “a good officer, a gentle man, a nice guy” – didn’t belt Gray in because of his “violent and erratic behaviour” that included screaming and kicking with such force that the wagon shook. Gray continued to thrash around in the van for several stops, the attorney said.
Graham said Goodson’s supervisors never directed him to seek medical attention for Gray, and that the man wasn’t exhibiting any symptoms of distress.
“He did his job, and he followed instructions,” Graham said. “Freddie Gray’s death was a tragedy, but convicting a good officer just to assign blame would make a tragic situation worse.”
Graham told the judge that the assistant medical examiner who prepared Gray’s autopsy report and ruled his death a homicide initially told an investigator that it was “a freakish accident” before meeting with prosecutors and changing her mind.
“It was the result of a pressurized investigation,” Graham said.
Rough rides, or “nickel rides,” so-called after rides at an amusement park, have been the subject of lawsuits in Baltimore and other cities.
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Dondi Johnson died of a fractured spine in 2005 after Baltimore police arrested him for urinating in public. Police put him in a van without a seat belt, his hands cuffed behind his back. His family said he was thrown into the opposite wall. The family won a $7.4 million judgment, though a cap reduced that to $200,000.
In Philadelphia, police in 2001 barred transportation of prisoners without padding or belts after The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the city had paid $2.3 million to settle lawsuits over rough rides that paralyzed two people.