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Baltimore Judge To Issue First Verdict In Connection To Freddie Gray's Death

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A judge in Baltimore is expected to hand down the first verdict in connection to the death of Freddie Gray today. An earlier trial of a different officer ended with a hung jury. This one involves a second defendant and a bench trial decided by a judge. And the verdict will address a big legal question rarely considered in this country. If a police officer arrests someone without probable cause, should that person face criminal charges for the arrest itself? NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

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KEVIN MOORE: Shorty, that was after they tased the [expletive] out of him like that.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Part of the reason this case became national news is this video taken by an eyewitness. It shows Officer Edward Nero dragging a handcuffed Freddie Gray into a police van.

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MOORE: After they done tased you over like that, you wonder why he can't use his legs.

PERALTA: That's not when Gray suffered the spinal injury that eventually killed him. But the prosecution argued that Nero had no reason to arrest Gray. And so the arrest itself, was an assault.

DOUG COLBERT: That's a very painful act for people who have been through that procedure. It's not like just putting your hands out and being cuffed.

PERALTA: That's Doug Colbert, a professor of law at the University of Maryland, who has been following this case closely. He says in the past, that kind of violence during an arrest, warranted or not, has been seen as part of the deal.

COLBERT: What I see the prosecution doing is sending a message to the police saying there are too many arrests taking place without probable cause.

PERALTA: Colbert says just bringing these cases to trial has already been beneficial to both sides. Presenting evidence in public allows the community to understand why an officer makes an arrest, for example. And it helps the department analyze how it cares for people under arrest. The trial, he says, is a healthy sign for Baltimore.

COLBERT: It's one that's going to allow the entire community to understand and to improve the current practices.

PERALTA: Of course, not everyone agrees.

LAWRENCE BROWN: What would be change would be to find four, five or six of these officers guilty.

PERALTA: That's Lawrence Brown, an activist and professor at Morgan State University. He says that most people in Baltimore don't expect justice to come out of these trials.

BROWN: This is not a system designed to hold police accountable. And I think most people living in disinvested, redlined, black neighborhoods understand that very clearly.

PERALTA: He says despite the prosecutions, the same tensions that led to a night of riots a year ago are still there. A big question - will those tensions flare when a verdict is announced today? Community leaders, including Representative Elijah Cummings, called for calm and for citizens to trust the justice system. Eyder Peralta, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.