Did the City of Baltimore’s multi-million dollar settlement with the family of Freddie Gray — a Baltimore man who died in police custody in April — just destroy six accused cops’ chances at a fair trial?
Some legal experts think so.
Gray’s death a week after being injured in police custody caused large-scale rioting in the city. Now, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the city’s was settling all civil claims with Gray’s family for $6.4 million.
The only problem? Making the announcement on the cusp of the officers’ trials sends the message that they’re guilty before a jury gets a chance to decide the matter.
Defense attorneys have asked for a change of venue, citing pre-trial publicity and concern that the officers will not receive fair trials if they are tried in Baltimore.
The settlement is expected to be approved Wednesday by the Baltimore Board of Estimates, a body that reviews city payments. The settlement appears to be among the largest settlements in police death cases in recent years, and was reached before the Gray family actually filed a lawsuit.
“Damages would have been paid if the city went to trial and they’re willing to settle it. But they tell us it’s by no way an admission of fault by the police officers,” said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “There’s no doubt that this will figure in to the hearing for change of venue. If I was an attorney for a defendant I’d be revising my motion right now to say the settlement was made to persuade the jury pool that the officers did something wrong.”
In July, New York City settled for $5.9 million with the family of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after being put in a white police officer’s chokehold. The city of Chicago settled in 2001 a wrongful death lawsuit by the family of LaTanya Haggerty, a black woman who was shot to death by a police officer who thought her cellphone was a weapon, for $18 million.
But Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said such settlements are damaging for communities and self-serving for governments. By paying off family members, O’Donnell said, cities can prevent real scrutiny of political and social ills that allowed misconduct to occur.
“It’s all too easy to take public money and hand it over to people and say, ‘Well, this is a big aberrational mistake and we’re going to make it good,’ and it generally absolves the policymakers and the people in power of responsibility, when in fact the mistakes are systemic and reflective of a lack of leadership,” he said.
The head of Baltimore’s police union condemned the agreement.
“To suggest that there is any reason to settle prior to the adjudication of the pending criminal cases is obscene and without regard to the fiduciary responsibility owed to the taxpaying citizens of the city,” Lt. Gene Ryan said in a statement.
All six officers, including Edward Nero and Garrett Miller, are charged with second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. Lt. Brian Rice, Sgt. Alicia White and Officer William Porter also face a manslaughter charge, while Officer Caesar Goodson faces the most serious charge of all: second-degree “depraved-heart” murder.
The Associated Press contributed to this article