(BALTIMORE) — A judge found Baltimore police officer Edward Nero not guilty Monday on all four charges for his role in the events leading up to the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.
Nero, 30, had pleaded not guilty to the charges stemming from his actions during the initial stop and arrest of Gray, who suffered a catastrophic spinal injury while in police custody. Gray died one week later and his death sparked days of violent protests in Baltimore. Because Nero opted for a bench trial, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams decided his fate rather than a jury.
During the case, prosecutors argued that Nero had no regard for Gray’s safety and was reckless by ignoring policing rules when he failed to place a seat belt on Gray, who was placed on his stomach in shackles in the back of a police transport vehicle. Congressman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said he would like to see seat belts in every police van moving forward.
Williams grilled prosecutors during closing arguments last Thursday, questioning whether a crime was in fact committed by Nero.
“So, every time there’s an arrest without probable justification -- it is a crime?” Williams asked.
“We believe that the search and arrest without justification are assault, your honor,” Deputy State’s Attorney Janice Bledsoe responded. “There’s no question about that.”
Legal experts say the tone of Williams' pointed questions during closing arguments gave an indication it would be an uphill battle for prosecutors to win their case against Nero.
The verdict comes more than a year after Gray’s death last April. His death became a symbol of the black community’s distrust of police, triggering days of rioting and angry backlash from community members.
Defense attorney Marc Zayon said that his client's actions were completely legal and protected by the law, and that the state’s case against Nero is “nonsensical.”
“I can’t believe I even have to argue this,” he said. “The detention is okay, the cuffing is okay, the moving is okay,” he said. “Being detained is a horrible thing, being cuffed is a horrible thing…but the law allows it.”
Public officials, including Cummings, called for peace and respect for the rule of law following the verdict.
“Whatever may be Judge Barry Williams' decision with respect to Officer Nero’s role in the death of Freddie Gray, that verdict will have as much legitimacy as our society and our justice system can provide,” Cummings said last week. “We will respect the decision.”
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