BALTIMORE — A judge further hollowed out the case against six police officers charged in the death of a young black man, delivering a third consecutive acquittal and ruling once again that prosecutors failed to prove officers intentionally hurt Freddie Gray.
In acquitting Lt. Brian Rice, the highest ranking officer charged, Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams was unequivocal in his ruling Monday. He told prosecutors they failed to establish that Rice was aware of his duty to buckle Gray into a seat belt, and more importantly, that he deliberately breached his duty in order to put Gray in danger.
"There are a number of possibilities this court could entertain, some that are innocent and some that are not," Williams said. "However, the burden of proof rests with the state, and the court's imaginings do not serve as a substitute for evidence."
Gray was arrested in April 2015 when he ran from police in a high-crime area. He was handcuffed and shackled but left unbuckled in the back of a police van and suffered a critical neck injury. Gray's name became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, fueling outrage nationwide over the treatment of black people by the criminal justice system and prompting the worst rioting in the city in decades.
The U.S. Justice Department launched a patterns and practice investigation into allegations of widespread abuse and unlawful arrests by the Baltimore Police Department.
Rice was cleared of manslaughter, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office. Earlier this year, officers Edward Nero and Caesar Goodson, the van driver who was facing a murder charge, were also found not guilty. Officer William Porter's trial ended in a hung jury in December and his retrial is scheduled for September. The last two officers have trials this month and in October.
Gray died April 19, 2015, a week after he suffered a critical spinal injury in the back of Goodson's police wagon. Prosecutors say the officers were criminally negligent when they failed to buckle Gray into a seat belt or provide medical attention after he indicated that he wanted to go to a hospital.
With no courtroom victories, activists are focusing on protests and police department reforms. A protest Saturday that blocked the interstate through downtown resulted in more than 60 arrests. Activists said they were demonstrating in support of having civilians sit on boards that review police misconduct cases, and spending more public money on community programs instead of policing.
"I'm disgusted, as usual, and they're sending a daily message all across the world that our lives don't matter, and that's sad," said Tawanda Jones outside the courthouse Monday. She was there marking the third anniversary of her brother's death in a separate case involving Baltimore police.
"We're more than hashtags and body bags," she added.
The Gray case hasn't fit quite so neatly into the narrative of white authorities imposing unfair justice on minorities.
Three of the officers charged are white and three are black. The victim, judge, top prosecutor and mayor are African-American. At the time of Gray's death, so was the police chief.
In his verdict, Williams said the failure to seat belt a detainee in a transport wagon is not inherently a crime.
"The state failed to show that the defendant, even if he was aware of the risk, consciously disregarded that risk," the judge said.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys are barred from commenting due to a gag order.
During the trial, prosecutors had said Rice was most responsible of the six officers charged for following police procedures to fasten a prisoner in a seat belt, citing his 18 years of experience on the force.
The officer's attorney said police could use discretion, if they believe their safety is at risk. Rice attorney Michael Belsky said officers had concerns because Gray was not cooperative and they weren't sure what onlookers would do if extra time was taken to fasten Gray in the van.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys gave different characterizations of the onlookers. Prosecutors described them as concerned observers, while Belsky said officers heard threatening comments during the arrest.
Williams said Monday that the definition of a crowd is not set in stone, however it is clear from witness accounts that "emotions and tensions ran high," and "information did not flow efficiently."
"The reality of what happened is not clear cut," he said.
Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby vowed to bring justice to an aggrieved citizenry when she announced the charges last year. But she has yet to find success in court, and is being sued for defamation by five of the officers.
Warren Alperstein, a prominent lawyer in the city who has been observing the case, questioned whether the other cases should go to trial.
"There are no more theories to put forth to a judge or a jury for that matter, and the state really has to think about, you know, not prosecuting anymore," Alperstein said outside the courthouse.
Despite increasing pressure from critics to drop the three remaining cases, it is unlikely Mosby will dismiss the charges.
At a news conference, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 President Gene Ryan called for the remaining cases to be dismissed, calling it "malicious prosecution against the remaining three officers."
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Monday he doesn't see the point of moving forward with trials against the three remaining officers.
Matt Clark, a Hogan spokesman, said the Republican governor responded to a question after the acquittal of Lt. Brian Rice. The Washington Post reported Hogan said: "It's a waste of time and money," adding "but that's up to the court system to decide."
At the Republican National Convention on Monday night, one of the speakers, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, called Rice's acquittal "good news."
The comment from Clarke, who is black, was met with rousing applause from the GOP audience.
Gray's family received a $6.4 million settlement from the city.
Associated Press writer Brian Witte contributed to this report.