BALTIMORE (AP) — Police prepared for demonstrators Thursday at the second pretrial hearing in the case against six officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, as local officials insisted the million-dollar settlement with Gray’s family would not affect the criminal proceedings.
Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams will likely decide whether the officers, who have been granted separate trials, will be tried in Baltimore or another jurisdiction. Attorneys for the officers have said days of protests and riots, a city-wide curfew and other pretrial publicity likely would taint a jury pool made up of Baltimore residents.
Police will have a “soft presence” outside the courthouse Thursday — no shields, helmets or riot gear— but all officers are on-call and ready to respond to any unrest, Commissioner Kevin Davis said.
“Officers won’t be donned in riot gear,” Davis said. “That is something we absolutely won’t roll out because we don’t want to be provocative or draw a line in the sand. But in the event that a peaceful protest goes south, we’ll be prepared to appropriately respond to it.”
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The officers were indicted in May and face charges ranging from second-degree assault to second-degree murder. The second hearing in their case comes just a day after the Board of Estimates approved a $6.4 million settlement for the Gray family, which intended to file a federal suit before the agreement was reached.
Gray died on April 19, a week after the 25-year-old black man suffered a critical spinal injury in police custody. His death prompted protests and rioting that shook the city and caused millions of dollars in damage, and has since come to symbolize the broken relationship between the police and the public in Baltimore, and the treatment of black men by police in America.
The settlement appeared to be among the largest in recent police death cases.
City Solicitor George Nilson said officials considered other settlements during the more than three-month negotiation, including a $5.9 million settlement between New York City and the family of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after being put in a white police officer’s chokehold.
Deputy City Solicitor David Ralph said the settlement safeguards the city against a federal judgment that could have greatly exceeded the $6.4 million, pointing to a 1997 police misconduct case in which a jury awarded the victim $39 million. In 2005, a jury awarded a man who was paralyzed in a police van $7.4 million. Gray’s injury occurred in a police van, prosecutors have said.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Billy Murphy, the Gray family attorney, said the settlement would not impact the change of venue hearing or any other criminal proceedings for the officers.
“The settlement expressly says this settlement that this does not have any bearing on whether the officers are guilty or innocent,” Murphy said.
But experts say the city settling for such a large sum before a lawsuit had officially been filed could potentially poison the jury pool.
“There’s no doubt that this will figure in to the hearing of change of venue,” said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “If I was an attorney for a defendant I’d be revising my motion right now to say the settlement was made to persuade the jury pool that the officers did something wrong.”
Since the hearing last week, attorneys for the officers cited news reports and protesters calling for the case to remain in Baltimore as an indication that potential jurors could be led to believe “if they do not find the defendants guilty there will likely be riots and unrest in their community.”
All six officers, including Edward Nero and Garrett Miller, are charged with second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. Lt. Brian Rice, Sgt. Alicia White and Officer William Porter also face a manslaughter charge, while Officer Caesar Goodson faces the most serious charge of all: second-degree “depraved-heart” murder.
The officers are not expected to appear in court. Three of the officers are white. Three are black.