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Do Baltimore’s charges against police signal a change?

To learn more about the charges against six officers in the death of Freddie Gray, Judy Woodruff talks to David Harris of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and former Baltimore prosecutor Debbie Hines.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We return now to the events in Baltimore and the decision by the top prosecutor there to charge six police officers in the death of Freddie Gray.

    Joining me to discuss those charges are David Harris, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, and the author of the book "Profiles in Justice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work." And Debbie Hines, she is a former Baltimore prosecutor who today practices law in Washington, D.C.

    And we welcome you both.

    Debbie Hines, let me start with you. As someone who was a prosecutor formerly in Baltimore, what was your reaction when you heard about these charges today?

  • DEBBIE HINES, Former Baltimore Prosecutor:

    Well, I think my reaction was the same as everyone's reaction. It was just total shock and surprise. I'm pleasantly pleased that prosecutor Mosby came out, did her own investigation, and came to the conclusion that she came to.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, let me ask you the same question, David Harris. What was your reaction when you heard, and how unusual is it to see police officers charged this way by a prosecutor without a grand jury?

    DAVID HARRIS, University of Pittsburgh School of Law: Well, it's unusual to see police officers charged at all. To be charged without a grand jury, that's a common thing, actually, in the jurisdiction of Maryland. Prosecutors can swear out an information, and that allows them to charge based simply on their own sworn statements.

    I was surprised, too, by the swiftness with which the whole process moved. And I think that is really one of the big takeaways here. No longer are we seeing prosecutors and police departments wait and wait and sit on their findings for long periods of time. We are seeing a swiftness and a sureness that I think we wouldn't have seen a year ago.

    And I attribute that all pretty much to the post-Ferguson change in atmosphere.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Debbie Hines, are you seeing a change, the same sort of change David Harris talks about?

  • DEBBIE HINES:

    I'm hoping we're seeing a change. I think it might be a little premature to say that we are seeing a change.

    I think that, in Baltimore, the circumstances are such, because of the prosecutor herself, who is new. She hasn't been entrenched into the system, and I think she did what was the right and the fair thing. But I'm just hoping this will be the trend to start, but I think it's a little too soon to actually say that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    David Harris, how strong would you say the case is, based on what we heard today from the prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby? She laid out some very specific details in the description of what happened on the day Freddie Gray was arrested.

  • DAVID HARRIS:

    Yes, and a lot of charges against all six police officers, including two homicide charges of depraved heart second-degree murder and some manslaughter charges.

    It is going to be a difficult case to prove, I think. Any case against a police officer is a difficult one to make. The jury comes into the jury room with the idea that the police are given the benefit of the doubt, that they're the good guys, and that has to be overcome in any case.

    Here, we have got substantial questions about the mechanism of the injury, how did it happen, who was responsible for it? Because you notice the prosecutor, she said, he suffered a neck injury, a very severe injury. She didn't say somebody did that to his neck.

    That indicates to me that the mechanism of the injury, how it was caused, that will be a central, a sort of core part of the proof she will need to bring. And I expect this will be a tough one. It won't be easy, and I have to say that the people who are celebrating this as a victory, they may be celebrating too early. These are always tough cases.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And we should clarify that there was actually only one charge of second-degree murder, against the officer who was driving the van.

    Debbie Hines, what about you? Do you agree this is a tough case to prove or does it look like the prosecutor has made a strong case here? We — of course, the attorney for the police union is saying the police didn't — are not responsible for Freddie Gray's death. He called it an egregious rush to judgment.

  • DEBBIE HINES:

    Well, I think the only charge that I have seen from what she's laid out that might be difficult is second-degree murder, particularly the charge that it's coming under, the depraved heart standard, because it's a little different.

    It's not necessarily that you have to prove that someone did something, as opposed to they didn't do something that put someone in a position of endangerment of their life. So I think that charge is going to be a little difficult to prove. But, as to the man involuntary manslaughter charges, I think it fits within the textbook definition of manslaughter, not that you — it's an intentional killing, but not that you so much, but you didn't intend what you should have done.

    In this case, they totally criminally neglected Freddie Gray. So, I think that those charges might be a little easier to prove than the actual one second-degree murder charges. And, of course, the other ones are just assault charges.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And just to clarify, the depraved heart part of the second-degree murder charge, you're saying that's a different standard?

  • DEBBIE HINES:

    Oh, yes, a second-degree murder charge is a much higher standard. Now, it's not first-degree, where first-degree is the highest form and requires premeditation.

    It requires no premeditation, but it does require that you did something that you consciously knew would seriously and recklessly endanger someone's life. So, the facts that she is showing to come out is actually the driving getting out of the van, seeing the condition that Freddie Gray was in at that time and doing nothing. That's the fact that she — or at least the alleged fact she's going for on that charge.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    David Harris, as someone who's looked at police charged with misconduct in many different kinds of circumstances, how do you expect this to unfold?

  • DAVID HARRIS:

    Well, we're going to learn a lot more in the coming days than we actually know now.

    What we know now is that there were charges and we have an outline of the facts, according to the prosecutor. It's important to remember we have only really heard this side of the story. And we always hear more than one side when a case gets to court. So we will learn a lot more. We will learn the content of the medical examiner's report. We will learn more detail about the police investigation.

    And that will really tell us how difficult a case it will be. I agree that the second-degree depraved heart charge will be the toughest one. It requires proof, not of intentional killing, but of extreme recklessness, knowing that there's a big risk to somebody's life and taking that risk anyway.

    And when we know more about what the case looks like in its details, we will have a better idea of how likely it is that the prosecutor can prove that. Right now, she says she has probable cause to proceed. That's the right standard for this time in the case, and she's going forward. So what will happen is, we will get a fuller picture, we will get both sides and eventually the case will come to court.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We thank you both, David Harris and Debbie Hines.

  • DEBBIE HINES:

    Thank you.

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