Before criminal proceedings began for the six officers charged in his death, a $6.4 million wrongful-death settlement — one of the largest in police brutality cases in recent years — was awarded to the family of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who died after sustaining a spinal injury in police custody in April.
This is uncommon in high-profile cases. People immediately wondered if the settlement might suggest to the jury pool that the city of Baltimore was essentially admitting the officers’ guilt.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said earlier this month that city officials’ decision to settle the civil claim prior to any decision in the criminal cases was “unusual,” but emphasized that it “should not be interpreted as a judgment” on the officers.
Legal experts think potential jurors might still take away that message. The experts suggest that awarding the funds so soon may have helped taint the jury pool, which could ultimately lead the judge to move the trials out of Baltimore. The settlement was announced just a day before the judge decided the trials would remain in the city for now.
“The settlement does help the defense’s argument that it will be difficult to find a fair and impartial jury in Baltimore,” Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University and a former public defender, told The Huffington Post. “Even though the settlement does not constitute an admission of guilt, it does signal that the city did not believe it had a strong defense.”
“It is fair to say that some, perhaps many, citizens will interpret it as a sign of the city’s – and, by extension, the officers’ — wrongdoing,” he added.
Usually, financial settlements in such matters are reached after the criminal proceedings or after the grand jury’s decision to not indict the officers. For instance, New York City awarded $5.9 million in July to the family of Eric Garner, who was captured on video as an officer held him in a chokehold that led to his death last year. The grand jury had declined to indict the officer in December 2014. A similar sequence played out for the family of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old with a toy gun who was fatally shot on sight by a Cleveland officer. The family of Rekia Boyd did receive a wrongful-death settlement before a judge acquitted the Chicago police officer who had killed her in 2012.
“Certainly a civil settlement could affect a prospective juror’s ability to be fair and impartial,” said Doug Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland and a former public defender. But he added that it’s an issue to be handled in jury selection. “By itself, it’s certainly not a reason to conclude that a jury pool has been tainted,” he said.
Colbert suggested that awarding the settlement before the criminal proceedings “really cuts both ways” in terms of influencing potential jurors for or against the officers.
“The people who might see a settlement as admitting liability, as an admission of the officers’ guilt, would be closely questioned” during jury selection, he said.
Source: Black Voices | Julia Craven