The depraved-heart murder charge against Goodson raised eyebrows from the moment that Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced it last spring. Because Gray was apparently injured while riding in a police van after his arrest, it made sense that the driver of the van might face the harshest charges, but the severity still surprised many observers. “Officer Goodson is charged with depraved-heart murder in a case that on its face seems more like negligence, whereas depraved-heart murder says that the individuals showed such wanton and reckless disregard for human life that it amounts to malice,” David Jaros, a law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, told me at the outset of the trial. Jaros said the prosecution was advancing “novel” legal theories to make their case.
On Thursday, Williams repudiated that approach, saying prosecutors had failed to substantiate their theories: “As the trier of fact, the court cannot simply let things speak for themselves.” He said that because Gray’s injuries were internal, a non-medical professional would have been unable to gauge them.
In order to prove that charge, prosecutors argued that Goodson had been giving Gray a “rough ride,” a form of punishment in which police drive vans erratically, turning sharply or braking suddenly, to throw prisoners in transit around. There had been suspicions of a rough ride since Gray’s death, because the 25-year-old was placed in a van while apparently healthy, but less than an hour later was found with a nearly severed spinal cord. He spent a week in a coma before succumbing to his injuries. But prosecutors did not seek to prove the rough ride until Goodson’s trial. What was not in dispute was that the shackled Gray was not seat-belted in the van, which is contrary to department policy but nonetheless common, according to witnesses.
But Williams rejected the rough ride argument, and upbraided prosecutors for using an “inflammatory” term without proving it.
Almost immediately, prosecutors got off to a difficult start in the Goodson trial. Williams erupted at the team over revelations that they had withheld potentially exculpatory evidence from the defense team, information gleaned from a meeting with Donta Allen, who was transported in the same van as Gray. Williams declined to throw the case out over the move, but he berated the prosecution: “What else is out there that you haven’t turned over?” Williams’s questioning throughout the case seemed to indicate some skepticism about the prosecution’s case.
The Gray case became one of the most high-profile in a string of cases of deaths involving police officers, joining Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others. Gray’s death inspired massive protests in the streets of Baltimore, as well as brief rioting and looting. The protests revealed a long-simmering fury on the part of black Baltimoreans toward a police force known for its brutality and harshness in communities of color. But the case also showed the subtle ways race plays in policing in places like Baltimore. The mayor and then-police chief are both black, as are three of the officers charged in Gray’s death, including Goodson. Nonetheless, parts of the city are strongly segregated by race and income, with poor black areas said to be subject to policing that could be both indifferent and brutal.