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The Freddie Gray Trial Asks: What Happened Inside That Van?


We want to bring you up-to-date now on one of the stories that's been part of the national conversation about police conduct in urban neighborhoods, particularly the treatment of black men. We're talking here about Freddie Gray, a black man who died from a spinal cord injury he sustained while in a police van last April. His death set off both peaceful and violent protests in Baltimore. Six officers were charged in connection with Gray's death, and the trial of the first of those officers, William Porter, is now wrapping up. He's been charged with involuntary manslaughter and second-degree assault, among other charges. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has been attending the trial, and she's with us now. Jennifer, the closing arguments are set for Monday. What's the key question here?

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Well, in large part, it's really going to come down to when the jury believes that Freddie Gray broke his neck in a police van. And, you know, after two weeks of testimony, that is a mystery we still do not know. Both sides agreed that somehow while Gray was handcuffed and shackled and not seatbelted, he managed to stand up and was kind of thrown forward by the van's movement.

Now, Maryland assistant medical examiner and another prosecution expert believe this happened before Officer William Porter checked on Gray. This would be at the fourth and fifth stops of this police van. And they say at that point, Gray would have been losing his ability to move limbs, breathe and talk. And they say Porter should have realized he was injured and should have called a medic when Gray said he wanted one. Now, forensic experts called by the defense have argued that Gray did not fall until near the end of this van ride and that he was instantly paralyzed shortly before he was found unconscious. And so that scenario would basically let Porter off the hook a bit.

MARTIN: What about this whole question of not making sure that Freddie Gray was secured via a seatbelt in the van? I mean, isn't that kind of a basic best practice?

LUDDEN: It is, absolutely. It is in the policy of the Baltimore Police Department. And yet, amazingly, a core of the defense argument is that, well, actually no one seatbelts detainees in vans. Officer Porter said he did not seatbelt Gray because he worried Gray might somehow grab his gun, even though Gray was handcuffed with his feet shackled.

Now, I should note this is not the first time this seatbelt issue has come up in Baltimore. The city has paid millions to settle allegations of police brutality in recent years, including for people who were injured in police vans when they were not buckled into a seatbelt. And so really, beyond the charges in this case, the Baltimore Police Department has not come off looking good.

MARTIN: Apart from that, though, can you talk about what distinguishes this particular case from so many of the other incidents involving questions of police conduct in urban neighborhoods that we talked about? What makes this different in your view?

LUDDEN: Well, prosecutors noted this in their opening statement. We're talking really more about what officers did not do. We're not talking about someone shooting a man in the back like some of the videos that we've seen recently. This could be a high legal bar. A legal analyst told me that the officer has to have understood his lack of action could have endangered Freddie Gray's life.

Now, what's more, for activists to have, you know, really been focused on white police officers' treatment of black men in poor neighborhoods, let's remember that three of the six officers charged in Baltimore are black, including William Porter. An African-American studies professor was sitting in on some of the testimony this past week. And he said he had really mixed emotions. He was glad the state had brought charges to hold police accountable, but at the same time, he told us he was uncomfortable watching white prosecutors basically trying to discredit a black police officer.

MARTIN: Are city officials in Baltimore taking any extra steps to prepare for a possible verdict this week?

LUDDEN: They've really been preparing since the violence we saw last April. They have bought a lot of new riot gear for police officers. They have done numerous internal reports, kind of going over how that went wrong. It was badly managed, they have admitted. And they've had press conferences appealing for calm, and the police department has now canceled all leave for next week as we wait for a verdict. Police officers will all be on duty to be deployed as needed.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Jennifer, thank you.

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.