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Murder Trial Begins For Driver Of Police Van In Freddie Gray Case


Freddie Gray died as a result of an injury that happened after his arrest last year. He was 25. Prosecutors say the young black man fell and broke his neck in the back of a police van. Officer Caesar Goodson was the driver of that van, and he faces a number of charges including second-degree murder, the most serious count facing any of the six officers who have been charged in the case.

Officer Goodson's bench trial began today. NPR's Jennifer Ludden is outside the courthouse and joins us now. And Jennifer, it's been more than a year since Freddie Gray's death. We remember the protest, the curfew that followed. Remind us how this case came about.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Well, Robert, Freddie Gray was well known to police here. He had a number of run-ins with them over drugs. In April last year, two officers on bike patrol made eye contact Freddie Gray. Gray ran away. They chased him and then arrested him. Bystander video of that arrest shows Gray shouting as officers put him into a police van with his hands cuffed behind him. Later they also shackled his legs.

Now, after six stops of that van, Gray was found unresponsive, so the key question in this case is, what happened inside the van?

SIEGEL: Now, even before opening statements today, the prosecution got off to a rough start. Tell us what happened.

LUDDEN: Oh, the judge, Barry Williams, lashed into prosecutor Schatzow Michael for not having turned over relevant evidence that could have helped the defense, so he decided not to dismiss the case as the defense had wanted.

SIEGEL: So the trial went ahead. What did each side say in opening statements?

LUDDEN: The prosecution said that officer Caesar Goodson could have prevented Freddie Gray's injury by seatbelting him inside the van and could have saved his life by calling a medic. He said the evidence will show Gray fell and hit his head in the van and that Goodson ignored evidence that Gray needed help.

Now, defense attorney Andrew Graham said there is no such evidence. He said it was the norm not to seatbelt detainees despite department policy. He called Gray's death a tragic accident, but he said it never would have happened if Gray had stayed facedown on the floor of the van as officers put him instead of standing up and, as he said, acting out.

SIEGEL: Now, what about the idea that officer Goodson, who was driving, may have given Gray a so-called rough ride. There was a lot of speculation about that last year after Gray's death.

LUDDEN: Right. Well, the prosecution said that Goodson at one point drove through a stop sign and took a corner so fast that he veered into the other lane and that this is when they believe that Gray fell down in the van.

Now, Goodson's defense said witnesses will say there's no evidence of a rough ride. In fact, he said the officer Goodson is such a careful, calm driver that some detainees in his custody have actually fallen asleep during transport.

SIEGEL: Gray's death set off protests in Baltimore that turned violent last year. What was the scene like outside the courthouse today?

LUDDEN: This morning there was one lone protester. He was 65-year-old Arthur Johnson. He's a retired black steelworker from West Baltimore. He's been out here from day one of this case. He held a sign that said, justice for Freddie Gray.

Now, Johnson actually agreed with some of the criticism of these trials. He says he has no doubt some of the charges against these police officers were brought for political reasons.

ARTHUR JOHNSON: But a crime was committed. Somebody out of six is guilty of something because this thing of everybody being acquitted and not being found guilty of nothing - what message does that send to the community?

LUDDEN: And he's referring to one trial where the officer was acquitted. Another ended in a hung jury. This is the third trial. Johnson said, you know - he actually figures Officer Goodson will also be found not guilty, and I can tell you a lot of people say that. There is widespread skepticism over these trials.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Jennifer Ludden in Baltimore. Jennifer, thanks.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.