Prosecutor: Baltimore officer on trial for what he didn’t do

William Porter, Joseph Murtha
William Porter, left, one of six Baltimore city police officers charged in connection to the death of Freddie Gray, walks to a courthouse with his attorney Joseph Murtha for jury selection in his trial, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

BALTIMORE (AP) — An officer is on trial for “what he did, or more importantly, what he did not do” to help Freddie Gray as the young black man suffered a spinal injury in police custody, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

Officer William Porter failed to render aid to Gray, who repeatedly asked for medical attention after he was arrested, handcuffed and shackled at his feet, and driven around in a police transport van for about 45 minutes in April, prosecutors said.

“The defendant alone is on trial for what he did, or more importantly, what he did not do,” prosecutor Michael Schatzow said during opening statements.

Gray’s death triggered protests and rioting in the city, and helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement.

He faces charges of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. The charges carry maximum prison terms totaling about 25 years.

His attorneys were to present their opening statement later Wednesday.

A jury was seated Wednesday, a selection process that was relatively brisk, given defense assertions in pretrial proceedings that it would be impossible to seat an impartial panel. Judge Barry Williams repeatedly denied defense motions to move the trial out of Baltimore.

Williams questioned 150 jurors over two days, mostly out of public view, in an efficient process designed to shield their identities. Some were dismissed, leaving a smaller pool for the final selection of 12 — eight women and four men — and four alternates.

Gray, 25, died April 19 of a severe spinal injury he suffered while riding in the back of police van without a seatbelt, a violation of department policy. Porter is accused of failing to get him medical help during several stops on the 45-minute trip. Gray arrived at a police station unresponsive, was taken to a hospital and died a week later.

According to a pretrial filing by defense attorneys, Porter told investigators that arresting Gray “was always a big scene” and indicated that he knew of a previous arrest in which Gray allegedly tried to kick out the windows of a police vehicle.

“You know, so he was always, always, like, banging around,” Porter said in the filing.

Porter will likely take the stand in his own defense.

Prospective juror Franz Schneiderman said he was interviewed individually by the judge after he indicated that he had been accused in or the victim of a crime. He told the judge he had some “unfortunate” experiences with Baltimore police, but believed he would be able to render a fair verdict. He was still dismissed.

For several days after Gray died, the demonstrations were mostly peaceful. But on the day he was buried, looting and rioting started, and businesses were burned down. The unrest caused at least $33 million in property damage and police overtime.

A verdict will likely to set the tone for the city. If Porter is acquitted, there could be protests and possibly more unrest. A conviction could send shock waves through the city’s troubled police department.

Two other officers are black and the three additional officers are white. They will be tried separately beginning in January. Their trials are expected to last until the spring.

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