BALTIMORE — Prosecutor Janice Bledsoe borrowed a quote from a famous French writer and a Hollywood blockbuster to conclude her closing argument in the case against William G. Porter, the first Baltimore police officer being tried in connection with Freddie Gray’s death.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” Bledsoe said. “Voltaire said that — and Spiderman.”
She told jurors that Porter had the power to save Gray at least four times but didn’t.
“He abused his power,” she said. “He failed in his responsibility. Hold him responsible.”
In defense attorney Joseph Murtha’s closing argument, he called Gray’s death a “horrific tragedy,” but not one for which his client is responsible. He alleged that prosecutors had “preyed upon the fears” jurors might have regarding the case.
“I understand that there’s this need to find somebody responsible, to hold somebody accountable for the death of Freddie Gray. That is a natural human reaction. But we sit and stand within the walls of a courtroom,” he said, adding later that there was “an absence — an absolute absence — from any testimony from a state’s witness that Officer Porter acted in an unreasonable manner.”
Murtha also reminded jurors that his client must be presumed innocent.
“The absence of real evidence raises much more than a reasonable doubt,” he said, focusing much of his time on attacking the state’s “star witness” — Carol Allan, the medical examiner — who Murtha alleged had “made a rush to judgment” when she determined the timing of Gray’s injury.
“I’m representing a man who’s charged with involuntary manslaughter,” he told jurors. “It’s astonishing, and it’s scary. That man’s life actually is in my hands and soon it will be in yours.”
Bledsoe had begun her closing argument with just a sound — a quick, quiet click.
“How long does it take?” she asked. “How long does it take to click a seat belt? And click a radio and ask for a medic? Two seconds? Three seconds? Maybe four.”
She continued: “Is two, three, four seconds worth a life? It’s all it would have taken.”
She argued that Porter’s failure to secure Gray with a seat belt or call for medical assistance caused Gray to be injured after police placed him in the back of a van in April. He died a week later.
“Freddie Gray went into the van healthy, and Freddie Gray came out dead,” she said, later calling the wagon “his casket on wheels.”
In preparation for those closing arguments, Judge Barry G. Williams told jurors Monday morning they could only find Porter guilty of the most serious charge — involuntary manslaughter — if they determined that he “acted in a grossly negligent manner,” severely out of line with the behavior of “a reasonable police officer.”
After eight days of testimony surrounding Porter’s actions on the day Gray sustained the catastrophic neck injury, the city is bracing itself for the verdict.
Authorities are worried that the outcome of the trial could trigger more riots and protests like those seen the day of Gray’s April funeral. And the public still awaits an answer to an important question hanging over this city for months: What happened to Freddie Gray?
The 25-year-old was arrested April 12 after he ran from police in his West Baltimore neighborhood. Prosecutors say he suffered a serious spine injury while being transported in the back of the van while his hands and feet were shackled but he was wearing no seat belt. Though it is unclear how exactly Gray got hurt, medical experts for both sides likened his injury to those sustained when someone dives headfirst into a shallow pool of water.
Over two weeks, more than two dozen witnesses and about 100 pieces of evidence, two narratives emerged to explain Porter’s actions.
And in Murtha’s closing argument, he reviewed each witness, insisting that the state had proved little.
He told jurors that small inconsistencies between Porter’s testimony and his videotaped police interview are irrelevant: “The issues they try to raise … don’t have any value to this case.”
In grilling Porter on the stand, he said, prosecutors “never had an a-ha moment.” Instead, Porter had merely recalled what he could.
In her opening, Bledsoe had told jurors that the critical phase of that trip in the police van was the fourth stop. There, she said, Gray told Porter that he couldn’t breathe, but Porter didn’t request a medic. The defense has tried to demonstrate during the trial that Gray must not have been injured until later in the trip.
“The only defense William Porter has is to say ‘I can’t breathe’ never happened at [the fourth stop],” Bledsoe said.
She asked jurors to remember the testimony of Detective Syreeta Teel, who interviewed Porter soon after Gray’s arrest and who testified that Porter told her Gray said he couldn’t breathe during that stop.
She called Teel “the most credible witness in this trial.”
Murtha later challenged the notes taken by Teel, saying that the videotaped interview in which Porter never says Gray was having trouble breathing is more reliable. Porter cooperated in that interview: “He had nothing to hide because he did nothing wrong.”
The prosecutor also attacked Porter’s assertion that he thought Gray was faking an injury.
“Officer Porter knew how serious the injury was,” Bledsoe said, arguing that Porter’s claim that Gray had “jailitis” was “a bunch of crap.”
She also pointed out that it was Porter, not Gray, who raised the issue of a medic. “He’s not playing the jail card,” Bledsoe said of Gray. “Officer Porter knew that Freddie was hurt badly … but he did nothing.”
Bledsoe also argued that Porter had no legitimate reason not to seatbelt Gray. Porter testified that he was concerned for his own safety, but he also described Gray in an initial police interview as “docile, limp, lethargic,” Bledsoe pointed out. “There’s no danger, there’s no reason not to seatbelt somebody … except what he came up with in the courtroom,” Bledsoe said. “There was no safety issue, he just didn’t care.”
Even if Gray had been severely injured, she said, he might have lived had Porter acted.
“The sooner he would have been given oxygen, the better his chances would have been for survival,” she said.
Bledsoe told jurors that to find Porter guilty of involuntary manslaughter, they need to consider the three components of the crime — negligent assault, reckless endangerment and disregard for human life. She recounted each stop the van made, pointing out how Porter’s conduct matched those three components at each step.
“Let me tell you how Officer Porter disregarded Freddie Gray’s life,” she said before describing how he saw Gray loaded into the van, heard his request for help at the fourth stop and lifted him onto the bench without buckling him in at the fifth.
At the sixth stop, she said, he saw that Gray was not breathing but did not start administering breaths to resuscitate him, as first aid protocol instructs.
“You didn’t even bother giving him the first aid that you got your certificate for,” she said. “That is disregard for a human life. That is manslaughter.”
Murtha vehemently denied those assertions, arguing that Allan, the medical examiner, had been wrong when she determined that the neck injury had occurred between the second and fourth stops.
“I’m begging you to take a very, very clear look at Dr. Allan’s testimony,” Murtha said. “This testimony cannot be relied upon.”
Officers put Gray into the van with his hands and legs tied, flat on his stomach during the second stop. At the fourth stop, they found him in that same position.
Allan theorized that between those points, he stood up, and was thrown to the ground again – and injured – when the van accelerated or decelerated.
Murtha noted that expert witnesses have said Gray’s neck injury was so severe he would have instantly lost the use of his limbs and been unable to speak. But at stop four, he spoke.
He reminded jurors that Porter sat Gray down on a bench at stop four. “How does he sit up on the bench if he has just suffered a catastrophic injury?”
As for the argument that Porter should have seat-belted Gray, he said prosecutors never presented evidence to prove that Gray had not been seat-belted by another officer. Murtha raised the possibility that Gray could have removed the seatbelt himself.
He recalled that Allan said she would not have ruled Gray’s death a homicide if the officers had taken him straight to a hospital after he said he was hurt at stop four. There is no evidence, Murtha said, that Porter didn’t tell the van driver to take him to a hospital then.
Earlier, the judge instructed jurors on how to deal with the charges beyond involuntary manslaughter.
To find Porter guilty of assault, Williams said, the jury will have to find that Porter was aware he was putting Gray “in a high degree of risk” with his behavior and again was “grossly negligent.”
To find Porter guilty of misconduct in office, Williams explained, they must find that he failed to do something required by the duties of his office, not as an honest mistake but as “a willful act, with an evil motive and in bad faith.”
Finally, to find Porter guilty of reckless endangerment, they would have to agree that “a reasonable officer … would not have engaged in that conduct.”
The jury should not judge his conduct from the perspective of a civilian, Williams said, but from that of “a reasonable police officer in a similar situation.”
The jury can consider police policies and general orders as factors in their decision-making, he said, but merely violating those orders is not enough to make Porter guilty of a crime.
Porter’s defense has argued throughout the trial that no officer follows every general order all the time, and that many officers were unaware of a new and stricter seat-belting rule on the day of Gray’s fatal injury.
Gray showed no signs of immediate injury and the police department had a culture of not putting detainees in seat belts, his attorneys have argued. And, they said, Gray’s well-being was the responsibility of the van driver, who was Porter’s supervisor.
“I didn’t call for a medic because . . . he was unable to give me any reason for why he needed one,” Porter testified in his own defense.
Prosecutors have described Porter as acting with “callous indifference,” alleging that the officer ignored Gray’s plea for help when he said he couldn’t breathe in the back of the police wagon. They say Porter ignored police training and policies by failing to place a seat belt on Gray and immediately calling for a medic when Gray requested one.
“He did nothing when he could have saved a man’s life,” prosecutor Michael Schatzow said.
The jury of seven women and five men — seven of whom appear to be black and five white — will ultimately decide whether Porter should have done more to help Gray or was simply caught in a tragic accident.
Whatever the verdict, city officials said they are prepared for Baltimore’s reaction. The Baltimore Police Department has banned officers from taking leave this week to ensure that all its resources are available. The department is also prepared to call neighboring law enforcement agencies for help.
Baltimore’s police commissioner, Kevin Davis, said the city has also been working on community outreach over the past several weeks, hoping to improve community relations with those in the city who have typically distrusted police.
“We’re prepared in a traditional sense with training and equipment,” Davis said, “but hopefully all of that is completely unnecessary.”
Sign up for email updates on the Freddie Gray case. We’ll email you new Washington Post stories on the trial as they’re published.