It’s been seven months since protests over the death of an unarmed black man after his arrest erupted into looting and arson, leading Baltimore’s mayor to declare a curfew and call in the National Guard. Now, that unrest remains a potent backdrop as the trial begins for the first of six police officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death.
“I just want peace while the trial is going on,” says Missa Grant, standing at a bus stop across a busy intersection from the former CVS that became a televised symbol of the violence. The store was looted, set fire to, and eventually torn down. The walls of a new red brick structure are now halfway up.
A building is now under construction at the intersection of Pennsylvania and West North avenues where a CVS Pharmacy was destroyed in the riots.
Grant says if the evidence shows the officers are not guilty, so be it. But with such a long and growing list of unarmed black men killed by police all over the country, she doesn’t think everyone will see it that way
“I believe there’s going to be another riot, I really do,” she says. “It’s not what I’m looking for. But I really believe that they’re going to react out if somebody doesn’t have to stand up for what happened to Freddie Gray.”
The officers face six separate, consecutive trials, on charges ranging from second degree depraved heart murder to misconduct in office. Officer William Porter is the first up, charged with manslaughter, assault, and reckless endangerment. He was called in as backup after Gray’s arrest, and was present at several stops of the policy paddy wagon in which the 25-year-old man was transported, handcuffed and in leg irons.
According to charging documents, Porter was present when Gray said he couldn’t breathe. The Baltimore Sun has reported that Porter told police investigators he informed the van’s driver that Gray was in medical distress, though also wondered if he was faking it. Prosecutors say they are trying Porter first because he is a “material witness” against at least two other officers.
“Porter is going to be the key to everything,” says A. Dwight Pettit, a Baltimore defense attorney not involved in the case. “What he negotiates or doesn’t negotiate, whether he’s acquitted or whether he’s convicted, he is going to be the determiner of how the other five proceed.”
Pettit is the first to allege systemic racism among Baltimore police. He’s won a long string of civil cases over excessive force. The city’s paid out millions to settle such claims in recent years. Yet Pettit says the this case is no “slam dunk,” despite that video of Gray’s arrest that played over and over on cable TV.
“That video is very inconclusive in many areas,” he says, as is the “cause of death. It’s going to be a major war between pathologists as to how he died. Ample opportunity to paint reasonable doubt.”