longtime civil rights attorney in Baltimore who specializes in criminal and constitutional law. He has successfully tried dozens of cases of police misconduct.
A grand jury has indicted six Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray, clearing the path for a criminal trial in the Maryland courts. Freddie Gray died on April 19 from his injuries suffered in police custody. The indictments came nearly three weeks after Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby first announced her decision to bring criminal charges against the officers. While some of the charges have been amended, the most serious ones — second-degree murder against Officer Caesar Goodson and involuntary manslaughter against four of the officers — remained intact. We speak to longtime Baltimore civil rights attorney A. Dwight Pettit.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A grand jury has indicted six Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray, clearing the path for a criminal trial in the Maryland courts. Freddie Gray died on April 19th from his injuries suffered in police custody. His family and attorney say his voice box was crushed and his spine was "80 percent severed at his neck." Gray’s death sparked massive protests nationwide. At a news conference Thursday, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced the indictments.
MARILYN MOSBY: Previously indicated, my office conducted an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the tragic incident with the death of Freddie Gray. On May 1st, our investigation revealed that we had sufficient probable cause to bring charges against six police officers. As our investigation has continued, additional information has been discovered, and as is often the case during an ongoing investigation, charges can and should be revised based upon the evidence. These past two weeks, my team has been presenting evidence to a grand jury that just today returned indictments against all six officers for the following offenses.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The indictments came nearly three weeks after Mosby first announced her decision to bring criminal charges against the officers. While some of the charges have been amended, the most serious ones—second-degree murder against Officer Caesar Goodson and involuntary manslaughter against four of the other officers—remained intact.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to Baltimore, Maryland, where we’re joined by longtime civil rights attorney A. Dwight Pettit. He specializes in criminal and constitutional law, and has successfully tried dozens of cases of police misconduct.
A. Dwight Pettit, welcome to Democracy Now! Your response to the grand jury handing down the indictment?
A. DWIGHT PETTIT: Well, they came down, as expected, so there’s no surprise. I’m glad to see that the amendments that took place included reckless endangerment. I think that’s a catch-all that I was sort of disappointed was not in the original charges, so I was glad to see that. And I was a little bit surprised, but not really, to see that the false imprisonment charges had been deleted. And I think maybe the state realized that that was a stretch, even though it was very progressive of her to bring the charges, but it might be a stress—a stretch to in fact attach criminality to probable cause, whether it existed or whether it didn’t exist. Other than that, there’s nothing new that’s any surprise. I anticipated the grand jury would follow the lead of the state’s attorney and those charges would be transferred to a true bill of indictment.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Dwight Pettit, what about the claims from the policeman’s union that there’s a conflict of interest here with the state’s attorney in this case? Could you respond to that?
A. DWIGHT PETTIT: Well, I think they’re frivolous. I think that’s just a political and personal attack on Ms. Mosby. I see nothing in their allegations that would warrant any type of recusal of herself. One of the striking parts about it is when they talk about Billy Murphy contributing $5,000 to Ms. Mosby. They, in fact, themselves, contributed almost the same amount of money. And so that’s something that takes place in politics anywhere you go: People contribute money. And I don’t see anything there. And her husband being a member of the City Council, that’s ridiculous. So those accusations, basically, I guess, was a response in terms of the FOP just trying to muddy the waters. One of the interesting things about it, they called for a special prosecutor. Well, we were fighting for special prosecutors in the Legislature this year in terms of all police reviews, and the FOP opposed it. And so they have totally contradicted themselves. And these motions, in terms of her having any type of conflict of interest, are, as she indicated, just about ridiculous and nothing.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the whole issue of the possible motion for change of venue when a trial occurs? Here in New York City, of course, we had the infamous case of Amadou Diallo a decade ago. And that—and there was a change of venue all the way to Albany, about 150 miles away, producing a completely different jury and eventually the acquittal of all the officers involved.
A. DWIGHT PETTIT: Well, I think that if there is a change of venue, that would be a political decision and not a legal decision. I don’t see anything in the law which would in fact cause this case to be taken from the jurors of Baltimore City. There’s a tool in that legal process called voir dire, where you can use that to make sure that persons who might have heard about the case can render a fair and impartial decision. And if pretrial publicity is the issue, well, this is a case that has been exposed to the world. And so, how does moving it to another county in fact cure the pretrial publicity that everybody has been exposed to? And so, voir dire, I think, is sufficient to, in fact, cure any problems in terms of the jury pool. I think if a judge removes it from the city of Baltimore, that will be more of a political decision rather than a legal decision, because I find no legal basis for removal.
AMY GOODMAN: New cellphone video sheds light on Freddie Gray’s fatal journey in a Baltimore police van. The footage obtained by The Baltimore Sun shows Freddie Gray lying motionless as several police officers shackle his ankles and load him into the vehicle. It appears to contradict earlier police claims that Gray was "irate" and "combative." One of the officers, Lieutenant Brian Rice, reportedly threatened to use his Taser on the eyewitness who was filming this. Can you talk about this, the significance of this, Dwight Pettit?
A. DWIGHT PETTIT: Well, you know, I think the newly discovered evidence that’s coming forth basically supports the charges that the state’s attorney has in fact brought against the police officers. And this intimidation—I think the officer, when he saw the lady pull out the camera, sort of threatened to in fact move toward her, or what have you—to some extent is the normal conduct of the Baltimore City Police Department. I’ve been practicing law here for 42 years. I know I’ve handled over a hundred or so police brutality cases. We’ve won some of the largest verdicts in the nation and the state. And in the last 20 years, I know, in terms of shootings of unarmed African-American men and women and so forth, I’ve handled over 25, 30. This intimidation of witnesses is a normal practice and procedure of the Baltimore City Police Department, so that does not surprise me.
But I think, in terms of the first part of your question, obviously, Freddie Gray was not doing those things which should have subjected him to any type of brutality or type of force that would in fact cause his death. One of the interesting parts of the evidence here that I think we need to look for and will appreciate will be the report of the pathologist, or if there is an independent pathology secured by the State’s Attorney’s Office, what those pathology reports or autopsies indicate as to force requirements and where the blows would have occurred and how they could have occurred, in terms of causation of death.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And from your close watching of the circumstances around this case, why do you think that the one officer who was driving the van was charged with second-degree murder?
A. DWIGHT PETTIT: Well, depraved-heart murder is basically any conduct which creates, or you’re aware of, a very excessive condition in terms of an extreme condition. And I think that that is—and you have to realize now, although it says second-degree murder, that’s not like murder as we think of, in terms of that charge. There’s no requirement there for specific intent. There’s no requirement for premeditation. There’s no requirement for malice of forethought. All you have to show is that the person knew of a dangerous condition, was aware of it, and continued to act without in fact addressing those dangerous conditions, which in fact then led to the death of the individual victim. And so, it’s not, just because it say murder—depraved-heart murder is not at the same level as murder as we know murder one or, in fact, murder two. It’s murder two, but it’s a different standard. It’s more a standard of a non-action and ignoring a certain condition that you knew existed. And I think that’s what they’re saying in terms of the driver and what have you, that he saw this, he had several opportunities to see Mr. Gray’s condition, he was aware of it. Maybe he heard the pleas for help and so forth. And he knew that it was a perilous, dangerous condition, and he ignored it.
AMY GOODMAN: Dwight Pettit, can you explain, for people around the country and around the world, the different systems that operate here? I mean, in Baltimore now, you have the state’s attorney. She announced indictments. Now you have the grand jury. They’ve announced indictments. Where does this process go from here?
A. DWIGHT PETTIT: Well, basically, when the state’s attorney brings charges, that’s just an initial type of thing. The grand jury, in fact, ratifies that by finding probable cause. It’s a very low standard to in fact get an indictment. That’s why people were so upset with Ferguson and so forth, in New York, why they failed to get indictments, because that’s the state’s attorney’s opportunity. That’s her or his show. There’s nobody there. It’s not an adversary proceeding. There’s no other lawyers. There’s no judge. And so, that takes place at the request of the state’s attorney.
The next thing will be the arraignment. And when you get to arraignment, where they would file appearances, enter pleas of not guilty, request trial by jury, then you get into the issue of motions. And motions will be filed for severance, as we have already discussed. The motions will be filed for removal. And that will start—and discovery will be turned over, where the defense will get all the evidence that the state has. So, that’s when the ballgame begins in reality.
This is a state prosecution in Baltimore City. It’s normally about a year before a case comes to trial. But here, because of the national attention and the worldwide attention, it might be expedited. And when those motions come in, then we will see whether or not—one of the big motions that we have to watch for is whether there will be a motion for severance. If the case is severed under the Supreme Court case of Bruton, meaning that if some one officer has made statements which inculpates another officer, they might have a right to separate trials. And then we will find whether there will be one trial or whether there will be six trials. And so, that will also determine the time period in terms of when the trials will take place, whether we’re dealing with one with six defendants or whether we’re dealing with six, or numbers within that range. And that all will be determined by motions.
So, motions is the next major thing. In Baltimore, usually the trial judge that’s going to have the case also is the motions judge. And when that is assigned, that judge, she or he will determine these motions, that which we speak of now, in terms of recusal, in terms of removal, in terms of severance, and then, of course, all your motions to dismiss the indictment for vagueness, etc., etc., etc.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dwight Pettit, what about the rapidity with which this indictment came down? We’ve seen cases where, in Ferguson, or in Staten Island with Eric Garner, it took months before a grand jury heard the evidence and rendered a decision. But here we’re talking just a few weeks.
A. DWIGHT PETTIT: Well, this state’s attorney, she’s just elected, and she ran on the basis of her office would be open and transparent, and she would follow the evidence. And I think she was very, very aware of the national sentiment, as well as the local sentiment, in terms of police being protected by the State’s Attorney’s Office, which is also—it’s what has occurred here in Baltimore City in my 42 years of practice here. The state’s attorney really works in conjunction with the police officer to, in fact, in many cases, cover for the police. So I think she was making a broad statement and a bold statement that she was going to follow her campaign promises, not meaning that all police are bad, not charging all police, because she comes out of a police family, but she was going to move expeditiously and follow the evidence, and wherever evidence led, she was going to in fact bring those charges or those cases. And because it happened in a quick manner, I do not think that in fact distracts from the substance of the allegations and the indictment.
AMY GOODMAN: A. Dwight Pettit, we want to thank you for being with us, legendary civil rights attorney in Baltimore specializing in criminal and constitutional law, successfully tried dozens of cases of police misconduct, won the largest constitutional rights verdict in Maryland history, one of the largest in the country, in 2004 at $105 million. Of course, we’ll continue to follow the Freddie Gray case.