Baltimore Police Officer Edward Nero was acquitted of all charges Monday in connection with the arrest and death of Freddie Gray.
Judge Barry Williams said there was no evidence that Nero intended for a crime to occur the morning he and and five other officers detained the 25-year-old for the alleged possession of an illegal switchblade. Gray died one week after the arrest on April 12, 2015, due to a serious spinal cord injury. Bystanders captured cell-phone video of officers restraining Gray with handcuffs and leg before placing him in the back of a police van.
Nero, 30, was charged with second-degree assault and misconduct in office for the arrest and reckless endangerment for failing to secure Gray with a seatbelt in the back of the van. He chose to argue his case before the judge, waiving his right to a trial by jury.
Prosecutors accused Nero of assault for handling Gray without first determining probable cause. Criminal analysts called the theory “radical”, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Attorney Marc Zayon argued that Nero, who was called in for back up, was not the arresting officer and therefore had no responsibility to establish criminality or assure that Gray was fastened with a belt.
“The State’s Attorney for Baltimore City rushed to charge him, as well as the other five officers, completely disregarding the facts of the case and the applicable law,” Zayon said in a statement. “His hope is that the State’s Attorney will re-evaluate the remaining five officers’ cases and dismiss their charges. Like Officer Nero, these officers have done nothing wrong.”
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake released a statement after the verdict, urging residents to remain calm until the legal process is finished.
“We once again ask the citizens to be patient and to allow the entire process to come to a conclusion,” Rawlings-Blake said. “In the case of any disturbance in the city, we are prepared to respond. We will protect our neighborhoods, our businesses and the people of our city.”
Gray’s death in police custody heightened tensions between police and local residents for days, culminating in a fiery face-off that left dozens injured and city businesses in ruins following the funeral on April 27.
Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings, who had appealed last week for peace and respect regardless of the outcome, released a statement thanking Nero for his service and called on citizens to stay focused on the goal of criminal justice reform.
“I believe that we are on the road to creating a city that uplifts all of its residents,” Cummings said. “Today’s verdict should not take us off course, instead, it should remind us of the importance of the road ahead.”
Civil rights leaders and community activists condemned the acquittal on social media.
“The acquittal of the Baltimore Officer is yet another reminder that Black life isn’t worth much in this nation,” Morehouse College professor and CNN Analyst Marc Lamont Hill tweeted Monday morning. “The “not guilty” verdict is also a reminder that the criminal justice system is not designed to yield justice for dead black bodies,” he added.
Perhaps the most unexpected reaction came from Gray’s family. Family attorney Billy Murphy issued a statement applauding judge Williams, who is Black, for standing firm in the face of criticism from the African-American community.
“I’m very proud of Judge Williams standing head and shoulders above most people. Under similar circumstances, he may have bent to the pressure, tremendous pressure, to do in this case what the black community wanted him to do. So my hat’s off to him,” the statement began.
Murphy said he believed that Nero’s case had nothing to do with the others and that Judge Williams was careful not to let the facts of the other cases influence his decision.
“And [Williams] said that from the outset, and also spoke from the way that he analyzed the facts,” Murphy continued.
“There are five other cases. Let’s be calm and patient to determine their outcome before we have any further to do about this matter. What we do know here is that he heard all of the evidence presented, he considered it all – both those facts that were in favor of the state, those facts that were in the favor of the defense – and he ruled in accordance with the law in a way that only the judge who could hear all of the evidence and knows all of the law could do. And again I commend him for not bending to public opinion, whether it came from either the white or the black community.”