By Sheryl Gay Stolberg, nytimes.com
Maryland’s highest court on Tuesday ordered a Baltimore police officer who is charged in the death of Freddie Gray to testify for the prosecution in the trials of his fellow officers. The ruling clears the way for the state to move ahead with long-stalled prosecutions in a case that has become a touchstone in the emotional national debate over race and policing.
In a pair of simple four-paragraph orders that did not lay out the court’s reasoning, the Maryland Court of Appeals announced its decision to compel the officer, William G. Porter, to testify under a grant of limited immunity, meaning what he says cannot be used against him in his own trial. The court said the ruling would be explained in an opinion to be issued later.
The decision is a major victory for the state in a complex prosecution that has drawn national attention as a test of whether it is possible to win criminal convictions against police officers. The death of Mr. Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody last April, set off a wave of looting, arson and violence in Baltimore — the worst riots in the city since the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Officer Porter, charged with manslaughter and assault in the death, was tried last year, but the case ended in December with a hung jury. A judge scheduled a retrial for June while the state sought to compel Officer Porter to testify in the trials of the other officers. His lawyers fought the move, leading to delays in the other trials.
“Now we can get back to the business at hand, which is the trials of the police officers,” said Douglas Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland who is supportive of the prosecution. “That’s the most important thing here. We took a two-month hiatus, and now we’ll be back in the courtroom.”
Precisely when the trials will begin, and in what order, remained unclear. The trial judge hearing the cases, Barry G. Williams of Baltimore City Circuit Court, has ordered prosecutors and defense lawyers not to talk about them. A court spokeswoman said Judge Williams would determine dates for the trials after he meets with lawyers “in the near future.”
Tuesday’s decision was the latest turn in cases that have riveted Baltimore and raised complicated legal questions. Lawyers for Officer Porter, who testified in his own defense, insisted that forcing him to testify in the trials of his fellow officers, even with limited immunity, would violate his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. They said a defendant had never before in Maryland been required to testify as a witness against co-defendants while his own trial was pending.
But David Jaros, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who has been following the trials, said the Freddie Gray prosecutions present a highly unusual set of circumstances that make it easy for prosecutors to prove they are not using Officer Porter’s testimony in other trials against him.
“If you look really closely at it, this is the perfect case to use limited-use immunity,” Mr. Jaros said. “The defendant has testified at trial, he’s made a videotaped statement, and the state has put all of their evidence forward in their own case when they tried Porter the first time. So we will be able to know what they had and what they got independently.”
Throughout the city, especially in Sandtown-Winchester, the West Baltimore neighborhood where Mr. Gray grew up, people have watched the criminal proceedings warily.
“Everyone is on pins and needles because there is no faith in the criminal justice system in the community,” said Raymond Kelly of the No Boundaries Coalition, an advocacy group in West Baltimore that helped organize a cleanup effort after the unrest over Mr. Gray’s death.
“But this has been a year of change, where never before were officers indicted so quickly,” he added. “Will there be justice? It’s gone to a grand jury, and they’re still walking the streets free.”
The decision by the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s equivalent of a Supreme Court, came as Mr. Kelly’s group, along with a sister organization, the West Baltimore Commission on Police Misconduct, released a 30-page report, based on interviews with residents, that tried to document and quantify the “panic, fear and mistrust” that residents feel toward the police.
Working with a civil rights lawyer, Susan L. Burke, and Charles Cange, an ethnographer and research scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the group held hearings and reached out to 1,500 people, 453 of whom shared accounts of what Mr. Kelly called “police misconduct.” None are named in the report; the authors said they also taped 39 in-depth interviews.
The findings, in a city where law enforcement has had a long history of tense relations with African-American residents, were hardly surprising. Mr. Cange said the interviewers identified “common themes,” including perceptions of racism in law enforcement and feelings of resentment toward the police. The authors estimated that only a small percentage of respondents felt “happiness or satisfaction” in their dealings with the police while a majority experienced “fear or anxiety” and “shame or humiliation.”
A spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department declined to comment.
The citizens’ groups have shared their findings with the Department of Justice, which is investigating whether the Baltimore police engaged in a pattern of civil rights violations. The Justice Department declined to comment, but Mr. Kelly released a letter from Timothy D. Mygatt, the deputy chief of its special litigation section, acknowledging that the report “sets forth significant concerns” that will be considered as part of its inquiry.
“Ensuring that we hear from as many people as possible who are affected by policing in Baltimore is critical to our investigation,” Mr. Mygatt wrote.