Edward Nero, one of six Baltimore police officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, was found not guilty on all charges on Monday morning, the Associated Press reported.
Gray died after suffering spinal injuries he is believed to have sustained in a police van after his arrest in April 2015.
Nero, one of Gray’s arresting officers, was facing over 15 years in prison, Fox DC reports.
Nero opted to forgo a jury trial and did not testify. He had pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and two separate charges of misconduct in office.
Fox reporter Paul Wagner photographed protesters following Nero out of the courthouse before deputies “moved in to protect him.”
Gray’s death came amid a series of high-profile killings of black men by police officers in the US. Peaceful protests in Baltimore at the time eventually turned to rioting, with the situation growing so violent that the governor of Maryland declared a state of emergency in the city and called in the National Guard.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake released a statement after the verdict noting that Nero would still be subject to an administrative review by the Baltimore police:
My statement on the judge’s decision in the criminal trial of officer Nero pic.twitter.com/2clErkU0YF
— Stephanie (SRB) (@MayorSRB) May 23, 2016
The Baltimore Police Department also released a statement:
Although the criminal case against Officer Edward Nero has come to a close, the internal investigation has not. With that, Officer Nero’s status will remain unchanged. He will remain in an administrative capacity while this investigation continues.The internal investigation is being handled by other police departments. The internal investigation will not be completed until all of the criminal cases against the other five officers are completed because they will likely be witnesses in each case.
- Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo
During the trial, prosecutors presented a legal theory that Nero didn’t have the authority to detain Gray because he didn’t have probable cause. Under this theory, Nero’s decision to put Gray in handcuffs constituted assault.
The Baltimore Sun reported that Williams seemed skeptical of the prosecution’s argument.
“Every time there is an arrest without probable cause, it is a crime?” Williams asked Deputy State’s Attorney Janice Bledsoe, according to The Sun. When Bledsoe said the answer depended on the circumstance, Williams said “No, no, no, no” and repeated his question. He returned to the issue again later, noting that arrests “for which the conduct of the officer is not objectively reasonable” have “all the elements of a crime.”
The prosecution and defense agreed that nothing leading up to Gray’s being handcuffed was illegal and that no assault was committed after Gray was searched. The Sun reported that, in doing so, the prosecution ceded arguments claiming Nero’s decision to pursue Gray was wrong. The state argued that Nero’s actions in the approximately three minutes before the search did constitute an assault since Nero had not attempted to gain information to justify the stop.
The argument goes back to a Supreme Court case from 2000, Illinois v. Wardlow, in which the court ruled that police officers had a right to stop people for fleeing at the sight of officers as long as other suspicious factors are at play– like being in a high-crime area.
The prosecutors in Nero’s case effectively claimed that the Supreme Court case ruling was wrong.
“Is it a gutsy theory? Yes. Do I think most prosecutors would have brought charges on this theory? Probably not,” Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor and a Georgetown University law professor, told The Sun.
The defense countered that the actions of Nero and other officers were allowed because of the Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, which ruled that the police could detain people for a short period of time (a “Terry stop”) if they had reasonable suspicion that the person had been involved in a crime.
- REUTERS/Bryan Woolston
Prosecutors also said the officers failed to secure Gray in the van with a seat belt, as was required by a policy change made only days earlier.
During Nero’s trial, Capt. Justin Reynolds, a former training director for the Baltimore police who testified as an expert witness, said it took two hands to secure a detainee’s seat belt, according to The Sun. As a result, he said, an officer could not secure the detainee without putting himself at risk. Reynolds acknowledged that he had seen detainees secured with seat belts in the vans before and that doing so was possible with a cooperative detainee.
On Thursday, the prosecution argued that it was not possible for Nero not to be aware of the potential risk of not securing Gray.
Five other officers have been charged in relation to Gray’s arrest and death: William Porter, Caesar Goodman Jr., Garret Miller, Lt. Brian Rice, and Sgt. Alicia White. Goodson, Porter, Rice, and White face manslaughter charges, with Goodson, the van driver, facing an additional second-degree “depraved heart” homicide charge. All face charges of second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and misconduct in office. False-imprisonment charges initially filed against three of the officers were dropped.
- Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo
Porter’s trial ended in a mistrial with a hung jury in December. His retrial is due in September. The other officers are all due to be tried in coming months.
Gray had come under the suspicion of officers Nero and Miller after he “fled unprovoked upon noticing police presence.” During Gray’s arrest, the police found what they said was an illegal switchblade.
Prosecutors had initially contested that the knife was legal, but the argument was dropped after the police cited a city code that they said it violated. Prosecutors then argued that the police had not been aware of the knife when they detained Gray.
According to The Sun, however, the knife did not come up during testimony.