A disciplinary panel unanimously found a Baltimore police van driver not guilty Tuesday of all administrative charges related to his role in transporting Freddie Gray, the black man whose a fatal injury during the ride sparked riots in the city.
The three-member board found that Officer Caesar Goodson, also a black man, did not violate any department policies outlined in 21 charges against him the day Gray was fatally injured in police custody. Goodson smiled and appeared relieved after the verdicts were read. His lawyers hugged and patted each other on the back with loud thumps.
“This is a vindication of this officer and what was done that day,” Sean Malone, one of Goodson’s lawyers, said outside the University of Baltimore, where the proceeding was held. “This is a tragic accident that happened, and we’re sorry for the loss of Mr. Gray, but we’re glad that our client is not going to be the face of this incident.”
Goodson has remained employed with the department and will keep his job on the force.
Department lawyer Neil Duke had argued that Goodson should have been fired for failing to follow policy by not buckling Gray into a seatbelt, failing to get him medical attention and lying about the chain of events following Gray’s arrest in April 2015.
Gray died a week later of a spinal cord injury he suffered during the van ride, prompting civil unrest among people expressing outrage at the treatment of African-Americans by police in Baltimore’s inner city. None of the six officers charged criminally for their roles in Gray’s arrest were convicted. Three of the officers are black and three are white. In reforms made as a result of Gray’s death, state lawmakers opened police disciplinary hearings to the public, hoping to improve transparency when departments seek to hold officers accountable.
Lawrence Grandpre, research director for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said advocacy groups like his have led the push to open such hearings for years, so this was progress. But Grandpre said civilian legal experts should be on such disciplinary review boards. This one was comprised of two Baltimore police officers and an outside chairwoman, Maj. Rosa Guixens, of Prince George’s County.
“As long as we have this dynamic at play, the playing field is going to be skewed toward cops not being held accountable,” said Grandpre, who observed the hearing.
The city of Baltimore reached a $6.4 million settlement with Gray’s parents to avoid litigation, but Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said his department remains committed to broader reforms, including this administrative process, with hearings pending for two more officers involved in Gray’s arrest.
“Freddie Gray died in police custody,” Davis said in a statement after the verdict. “My thoughts and prayers remain with the Gray family. We will continue to make improvements within our organization to meet the expectations of constitutional policing demanded by our community.”
Duke argued that Goodson, a van driver with 14 years of experience, had a duty to pay closer attention to his passenger’s condition as Gray banged around in the back of the van, his arms handcuffed and his legs in shackles.
Goodson’s lawyers said the department was to blame for failing to properly distribute a policy change making seatbelts mandatory just days before Gray’s arrest. They also said outside investigators in the disciplinary case failed to seek out or include evidence that could have exonerated Goodson in the arrest and transport, which involved multiple officers at six different stops.
As with Goodson’s criminal trial last year, much of the testimony came from other officers involved in Gray’s arrest who provided their views of what happened during the van’s six stops on the way to a nearby police station.
Of the six officers, Goodson faced the most serious charge in criminal court: murder. But he, Lt. Brian Rice and Officer Edward Nero were acquitted at trial last year, and then prosecutors dropped charges against Sgt. Alicia White and officers Garrett Miller and William Porter.
Porter faced no administrative charges. Nero and Miller did, and accepted disciplinary action, according to the police union attorney who represents them. Neither their attorney nor the department would say what that discipline was. Rice and White still face disciplinary action before an administrative board. Rice’s trial board is scheduled to begin Monday. White’s is scheduled to begin Dec. 5.
SOURCE: BRIAN WITTE