BALTIMORE — The judge was unequivocal as he explained why he found a police driver not guilty of all charges in the death of a 25-year-old arrestee whose neck was broken inside his transport wagon: Prosecutors showed no evidence of a crime.
The acquittal of Officer Caesar Goodson in the death of Freddie Gray is the most significant blow yet to their efforts to hold police accountable after protests and rioting in the troubled city.
The failure raises the prospect of whether any convictions can be obtained, and if State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby should simply give up trying the case in criminal court.
Gray's death made his name a rallying cry for the growing Black Lives Matter movement and sparked more outrage nationwide over how black people are treated by police and the criminal justice system.
But the case hasn't fit quite so neatly into the American narrative of white authorities imposing justice unfairly on black people. In this case, the defendant, trial judge, state's attorney and mayor are African-American; at the time of Gray's death, so was the police chief.
After the verdict, Black Lives Matter activist and Baltimore native DeRay Mckesson aimed his criticism at the entire system.
"Today is a reminder that there is a set of laws, policies and police union contracts across the country that will protect any form of police behavior," he said.
Goodson was the only one of the six officers charged in Gray's death to be accused of murder. He's the second to be found not guilty, and another officer's case ended in a mistrial.
Baltimore Judge Barry Williams said the state also failed to prove manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.
"There has been no evidence that this defendant intended for a crime to happen," Williams said, adding that "the state had a duty to show the defendant corruptly failed in his duty, not just made a mistake."
Prosecutors said Goodson was criminally negligent because he didn't buckle Gray into a seat belt to keep him from slamming into the walls of the van's metal compartment after officers bound his hands and feet.
The state also said Goodson exhibited a disregard for Gray's life when he chose not to call a medic after Gray repeatedly indicated that he wanted to go to a hospital.
But Goodson wouldn't talk to investigators or take the stand at trial, and there were no witnesses or cameras to show what happened inside his van, leaving the state with slim evidence of intent to harm.
"The state failed to prove the defendant knew or should have known that Mr. Gray needed medical care," the judge said.
The judge said Goodson wouldn't have been able to determine whether Gray was injured between the second and fifth stops on the 45-minute trip, because only after the van finally arrived at the Western District station house did officers observe Gray with blood and saliva on his face, and evidence that he'd become incontinent, Williams said.
"Unlike in a shooting or a stabbing, or a car accident, this injury manifests itself internally," Williams said, citing conflicting testimony from medical experts. "If the doctors weren't clear, how would a person without medical training know?"
The judge also dismissed the "rough ride" theory, which he called the centerpiece of the state's case. Proving it required evidence of actions and intent, and the state provided neither, he said.
"Seemingly the state wants this court to assume, because Mr. Gray was injured, that the defendant gave him a rough ride," Williams said, adding, "there is insufficient evidence to prove the defendant gave Mr. Gray a rough ride."
Gray was arrested April 12, 2015, after running from an officer on bike patrol outside a public housing project. A neighbor's video showed him handcuffed behind his back and hoisted into Goodson's van, which made six stops on his 45-minute odyssey to the nearby station house.
The violence following Gray's death a week later forced Maryland to bring in the National Guard. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired the police commissioner and then abandoned her re-election campaign. The Justice Department is formally investigating allegations of widespread police abuse.
The mayor noted that Goodson still faces an administrative review by the police department, and her likely successor, State Sen. Catherine Pugh, pleaded for patience.
"Although people may disagree with the verdict, it is important to respect each other and to respect our neighborhoods and our communities," Pugh said.
Mosby was in court to hear the verdict, and appeared crestfallen as she hurried out of the courthouse, climbing into a black SUV that sped down the street, away from the crowd.