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The implications of Baltimore police officer’s acquittal in Freddie Gray case

A Baltimore Circuit judge on Monday found police officer Edward Nero not guilty on all counts for his role in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American whose alleged mistreatment in police custody prompted violent citywide protests in 2015. Hari Sreenivasan sits down with former Baltimore prosecutor Debbie Hines to discuss the case and its consequences.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But, first, we return to Baltimore and the not-guilty verdict for a police officer charged in the death of Freddie Gray.

    Debbie Hines was in the courtroom today. She's a former Baltimore prosecutor who currently practices law in Washington.

    Thanks for joining us.

    Tell us first, I guess, what was the mood in the courtroom?

  • DEBBIE HINES, Former Baltimore Prosecutor:

    Well, they made very clear before the judge even came out that there wasn't to be any shouting, any emotions, and if you didn't think you could contain your emotions inside the courtroom, then you needed to leave before the judge came out. So there wasn't really any response inside a completely packed courtroom.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. What about Nero himself? What about the officer when he heard the verdict?

  • DEBBIE HINES:

    I couldn't see his expression because he's from the back. I'm looking at him from the back, as all the spectators in the courtroom are.

    But there still wasn't any emotion there. And you have to understand that the judge read about 20 minutes. It's not just as it comes out in a jury verdict where it's not guilty, not guilty, not guilty. He actually read a very long legal opinion describing each and every of the four counts and how he came to his conclusion.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, this is also in this specific individual case, right? This isn't an automatic hall pass for all the officers. We already had one end up in a hung jury, and now we're just talking about officer number two in this situation.

  • DEBBIE HINES:

    Exactly. And that was one of the things that Judge Barry Williams made very clear when he went over methodically all the facts and the evidence that had been presented, that he actually said it might have been different when we get to the cases of Officer Miller and actually the case of the van driver, who, throughout the course of both trials, Officer Porter, as well as Officer Nero, everybody seemed to be putting a lot of blame on the van driver for the criminal actions.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What about the decision here by Officer Nero to choose a bench trial instead of a jury trial?

  • DEBBIE HINES:

    I was reading his lawyer's account of that.

    And that, I think, was a superb decision in this case and in this case only. There is always a risk, because, generally — I do some criminal defense, and, generally, you want to have 12 people decide your fate, more than just one person.

    But a lot of the issues that are surrounding Officer Nero, they really evolved around legal issues and his facts as they fit into the legal issues and that's where the burden of proof comes in. And so I think that his attorneys felt that his best shot was with having a bench trial and a judge who could look at the facts on the one hand, look at the elements of the law on the other hand, and make sure that they fit together, without showing any emotions as what would be likely or might be likely with a jury.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Right, especially with a jury this kind of a heated climate. Maybe they might want to find him guilty of something before they let him out.

  • DEBBIE HINES:

    Right.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, so how does the state prove that officers knew about the rules on how to belt down someone who was under arrest?

    It seems some of this case depends on whether or not somebody opened an e-mail.

  • DEBBIE HINES:

    Well, it's that.

    And then when I was looking over the written opinion from Judge Williams, he also went through a lot of discussing the van driver. And a lot of the regulations go to actually the van driver's responsibility and his duty. And then there were the other officers that were involved. One was a lieutenant and their supervising officers.

    And so I think a lot of his decision in this case weighed heavily on Officer Nero was only a two-year, if you want to call a veteran — he was a rookie. He's only been on the force for two years. And so, in this case, the facts are very fact-specific. There was an e-mail that went out several days before Freddie Gray's arrest that basically that you have to seat-belt. It's a mandatory seat-belting any detainees.

    And he was off that day. So it's not even clear if he actually read it because he's off that day. He's not there and there was no evidence that it was presented in any role call.

    But I think the facts are very specific, and the judge wanted to point that out, as to what the awareness was with respect to Officer Nero in his case.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, so then we have got four more officers. This is…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • DEBBIE HINES:

    Or really five, because they're going to retry Porter.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Five, right. That's right.

    So, this is a very long — give us the timeline. What's kind of the next step now?

  • DEBBIE HINES:

    OK.

    So, the next step — and this is really, really the biggest one. That's going to be Officer Caesar Goodson. And he is the van driver, and his trial is June 6. And he is the most culpable.

    I think, whether you're defense or you're the prosecution, he's the most culpable of all. And then the other officers that are staged after that, the trials are leading up all the way to September if all of them are tried.

    But I think what happened with Officer Goodson, who is the most culpable by even his fellow officers, I think that that's going to make the determination of what happens ultimately in the other cases.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Debbie Hines, thanks so much.

  • DEBBIE HINES:

    Thank you for having me.

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