BALTIMORE — A Baltimore officer was acquitted Monday of assault and other charges in the arrest of Freddie Gray, dealing prosecutors a significant blow in their attempt to hold police accountable for the young black man's death from injuries he suffered in the back of a police van.
A judge also found Officer Edward Nero not guilty of reckless endangerment and misconduct in office, saying he acted as any reasonable officer would and only touched Gray after he was in handcuffs.
As the verdict was read, Nero dropped his head down and his attorney placed a hand on his back. The courtroom was quiet. When the judge said he was not guilty, Nero stood up and hugged his attorney, and appeared to wipe away a tear.
"The state's theory has been one of recklessness and negligence," Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams said. "There has been no evidence that the defendant intended for a crime to occur."
The assault charge carried a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and reckless endangerment carried a punishment of up to five years.
Gray died April 19, 2015, a week after his neck was broken in the back of a police transport van while he was handcuffed and shackled but left unrestrained by a seat belt.
Nero, who is white, was one of six officers charged in the case. He waived his right to a jury trial, opting instead to argue his case before judge Williams. A jury trial for Officer William Porter late last year ended in a hung jury when the panel could not reach a decision on manslaughter and other charges. Porter is black.
Gray's death set off more than a week of protests followed by looting, rioting and arson that prompted a citywide curfew. His name became a rallying cry in the growing national conversation about the treatment of black men by police officers.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement that Nero will still face an administrative review by the police department.
"We once again ask the citizens to be patient and to allow the entire process to come to a conclusion. 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," she said.
About a dozen protesters gathered outside the courthouse as the verdict was read, but they appeared peaceful in the moments after learning the verdict. The number of media far outnumbered the demonstrators.
On the morning of April 12, 2015, Nero, Officer Garrett Miller and Lt. Brian Rice were on patrol in Baltimore's high-crime area of the Western District when Rice made eye contact with Gray and he ran away. Rice called for backup, and Miller and Nero responded. According to testimony, Miller, who'd jumped off his bicycle, caught up with Gray and placed him in handcuffs.
Nero's attorney, Marc Zayon, said Nero touched Gray to help him up from the ground after he'd been handcuffed and was asking for an inhaler.
Gray was placed in the back of the transport van, seated on the wagon's bench.
A few blocks away the van stopped, and Rice and Miller took Gray, who police said had been kicking, screaming and shaking the van, out of the wagon, placed him in leg irons and replaced his metal cuffs with plastic ones. The officers, with Nero's help, loaded Gray back into the van, sliding him into the compartment on his belly and head-first.
That was the second and last time Nero touched Gray, his attorney said during the trial.
Miller testified that he alone arrested Gray, and the judge said he believed him.
Prosecutors said the officers should never have arrested Gray without first patting him down to determine whether or not he was armed and dangerous. In failing to do so, the officers violated the rules for a routine stop. Without probable cause, Gray never should have been taken into custody, they said.
The judge disagreed.
"This court does not find that the defendant detained Gray without probable cause," Williams said.
The other officers, two white and two black, are set to each have separate trials over the summer and into the fall. They have pleaded not guilty.