BALTIMORE — After two prosecutions without a conviction since the fatal arrest of Freddie Gray, opening arguments were set to begin Thursday in the trial of Caesar R. Goodson Jr., the only officer charged with murder in connection with the death and the driver of the police wagon in which Gray suffered the spinal injury that killed him.
The combination of the two unsuccessful prosecutions and the murder charge has raised the stakes substantially in the trial of the third of six officers charged in the death of Gray, 25, a black man whose death spurred riots.
“These are the most serious charges,” said Warren S. Alperstein, a defense lawyer here who has represented police officers and has been closely following the cases but is not directly involved in them. “This is, arguably, the make-or-break case for the state. It would be a devastating blow if the state was unable to secure a conviction.”
The trial comes as prosecutors aim to shift the narrative away from the mistrial of one officer involved in the case and, just over two weeks ago, another one’s acquittal on all charges.
But legal experts say it will be exceedingly difficult for prosecutors to secure a conviction for murder. Some activists in Baltimore say their faith in the judicial process is already worn.
“The average person doesn’t really expect anything,” said Dayvon Love, the director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, an advocacy organization. “They expect the officers to get acquitted. They don’t expect any accountability.”
In addition to the failed prosecutions, the trials have left lingering questions about how Gray ended up with a severed spine, critics say.
“The world wants to know what happened to Freddie Gray,” said Darlene Cain, a nurse’s assistant whose own son was shot and killed by a Baltimore police officer in 2008 and who has advocated greater accountability from officers who use force. “How did a young person, healthy, talking and standing at one moment, and then at the next time, he’s not living?”
Goodson, 47, a 17-year Baltimore police veteran who, like Gray, is black, faces seven charges in total, including three charges of manslaughter, and a charge of second-degree depraved heart murder — a rare charge for a police officer, even as scrutiny of law enforcement grows.
“We’re seeing a huge increase in trials for officers for any criminal offense, but I’ve never seen a murder trial for an officer without video or eyewitness testimony,” said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina who has focused on the use of force by police.
He added, “It’s been an uphill battle in the other two trials, and this is going to be the toughest.”
The case will be decided not by a jury, but by Judge Barry G. Williams, the same judge who acquitted another officer, Edward M. Nero, late last month. Williams, once an attorney in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, is also black, and he won accolades from members of the legal community — including Billy Murphy, the lawyer for Gray’s family — for not bowing to public pressure in deciding Nero’s case. But he has been accused in some quarters of making a narrow ruling that did not reckon with the larger questions of the case.
Goodson’s side of the story has never been officially told; he is the only charged officer who did not give a statement to police investigators. Court filings have hinted that the prosecution may suggest Gray was taken for a so-called rough ride, with Goodson intentionally driving the van in a dangerous fashion. They have indicated plans to call a witness who can discuss the practice. But legal observers say it is not yet clear what, if any, evidence they have to prove that is what happened on April 12, 2015, when Gray was arrested.
“The open question with regard to the Goodson trial is, will we hear more about the practice of giving rough rides?” said David Jaros, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, who said that the existence of such a theory could explain why prosecutors chose to charge Goodson with murder.
“Absent a rough ride,” Jaros said, “it is much harder to understand the prosecution’s decision to pursue that particular charge, which requires a wanton and reckless disregard for human life that is so significant that it is akin to intentional murder.”
What is known is that Goodson responded to the arrest of Gray on a bright morning. Gray had fled, apparently unprompted, from police officers in the downtrodden neighborhood of Sandtown, in West Baltimore. Gray was eventually placed — in handcuffs and leg shackles but no seatbelt — in Goodson’s transport wagon, which made several stops in the neighborhood before arriving at the Western District police station.
There, Gray was found unresponsive. He died of a spinal injury a week later.
Protests here grew so violent that Governor Larry Hogan called in the National Guard. With armored trucks still rolling through the city, the state’s top prosecutor, Marilyn J. Mosby, announced charges against six police officers — three black, three white.
Late last month, Nero was acquitted on charges of second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and two counts of misconduct connected to his role in Gray’s arrest. And in December, a jury failed to reach a verdict in the case of Officer William G. Porter, who faced charges including manslaughter and reckless endangerment.
Prosecutors eventually secured an unusual ruling from the state’s highest court — a procedure that caused delays in all of the trials — to let Porter testify against Goodson while his own retrial is pending.
“Officer Porter’s testimony will be crucial,” said Douglas Colbert, a professor of law at the University of Maryland, who has been supportive of the prosecution.