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Goodson Trial: Can prosecutors close the case?

P. Kenneth Burns

Closing arguments in the trial of Officer Caesar Goodson are scheduled Monday morning before Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams.

Goodson faces the most serious charges in the death of Freddie Gray; second degree depraved heart murder, criminal negligent vehicular manslaughter, gross negligent vehicular manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment.

But the state has had a hard time thus far proving its case against the officer it has charged.

Officer William Porter’s trial ended in a hung jury last December.  He’s to be re-tried in September.  Officer Edward Nero was acquitted by Williams in May of assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.

And legal experts have said the state’s case against Goodson seems weak.

“It’s my belief that the state decided to prosecute and then went back and looked at the evidence to try to build a case against these individuals that they decided to prosecute as opposed to looking at the evidence and following the evidence wherever it lead them,” said  defense attorney Warren Brown who has been observing the proceedings.

Brown called the Goodson trial “sort of the Waterloo or the Gettysburg for the state’s attorney” and that convicting Goodson is critical for the state’s case against the other officers.

Legal experts, including Brown, have said Goodson is the state’s best shot at getting a conviction in the case.

Goodson was the van driver who had ultimate custody of  Gray from the moment he picked him up in the 1700 block of Presbury Street to when the van returned to the Western District police station.

During that trip on April 12, 2015, Gray suffered the injuries that led to his death a week later.

But the state’s case has been marred.

Prosecution witnesses told Judge Williams they saw no characteristics of a rough ride on closed circuit video footage; contradicting the state’s theory.

Former city prosecutor Warren Alperstein says it’s never good when state witnesses are great defense witnesses.

“In other words, the points that a defense attorney scores on cross examination become so powerful; so persuasive that they become the end all of end all points that the defense scores,” he said, adding it leaves the state in a tough bind.

Defense witnesses, including one of the lead detectives in the investigation, said Assistant State Medical Examiner Dr. Carol Allan raised the possibility that Gray’s death was accidental several times.  Allan had testified for the state the word “accident” never crossed her lips, other than to say this “was no accident.”

University of Baltimore Law School Professor David Jarros says that will undermine Allan’s credibility if Judge Williams believes the testimony.

“The medical examiner’s testimony played an important role in establishing the timing for the prosecutor,” Jarros says.  “So if she’s less credible, that’s a problem.”

The state’s problems go beyond evidence.

Dawnyell Taylor, the detective who testified about Allan’s suspicion of an accident, also said she and her superior stopped talking to prosecutors after Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow accused her of sabotaging the state’s case.

Meaning prosecutors and the police were seemingly working in separate corners. 

Warren Brown called that “blind indifference.”

“I think the state decided that they did not want to hear from the police and their investigation,” he said. “…if it was inconsistent with their decision that had been made ahead of time to prosecution; and that’s where the rub came in.”

The rub was Taylor and prosecutors questioning each other’s integrity in open court last Thursday.

Alperstein called the testy exchange was astonishing to watch considering the high stakes involved with the case.

“From the inception of this case, I think it was probably understood that everybody involved in the investigation, whether its police or prosecutors or both, has to do everything they can to make sure they cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’,” he said.

And now the trial comes down to who Judge Williams will believe more; the medical examiner and co-defendant who testified on behalf of the state or their counterparts for the defense.