By Ian Duncan and Justin George, The Baltimore Sun
June 24–An autopsy that ruled Freddie Gray’s death a homicide is likely to be a controversial piece of evidence in the criminal case against six police officers who are facing a range of charges.
The state medical examiner’s officer concluded in the autopsy, obtained by The Baltimore Sun, that Gray’s death could not be ruled an accident. The homicide ruling was based on the failure of officers to follow safety protocols. The 25-year-old Baltimore man died in April, a week after suffering a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody.
Legal analysts said the autopsy could be used by prosecutors to show that officers took Gray on a “rough ride,” in which prisoners are intentionally jostled in the back of transport vans driven erratically, and failed to take steps to ensure his safety and provide medical assistance.
Defense attorneys, however, could argue that the autopsy depicts a series of errors that could be construed as an accident and that the officers aren’t culpable in Gray’s death, analysts said.
“I would support a definition of homicide, but I think you would get other medical examiners that would certify this case as an undetermined case or an accident,” said pathology professor Jeffrey M. Jentzen, director of autopsy and forensic services at the University of Michigan Health System.
Jentzen also noted that more information is needed to understand the officers’ intentions. The autopsy doesn’t discuss motives, and Jentzen said he’d like to understand why officers restrained Gray but didn’t put him in a seatbelt, why they put him on his belly in a “prone” position in the back of the van, and whether they intended to give Gray a “rough ride.”
Gray’s autopsy could provide important insights into how prosecutors plan to handle the case against the six officers charged in his death, legal analysts said, and some clarity in an incident that has provoked almost as much confusion as it has outrage.
The 13-page report provides an account of Gray’s 45-minute journey inside the police van on April 12, laying out when he mostly likely suffered the fatal neck injury and the opportunities officers had to intervene.
Dr. Cyril Wecht, a veteran forensic pathologist, said the report outlines a series of errors that officers made, from leaving him vulnerable in the van by only putting shackles on his legs and hands, to failing to act when it looked like he was hurt.
“This is unacceptable conduct and behavior for these officers,” Wecht said.
Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr., the driver of the van, faces the most serious charge: second-degree depraved-heart murder. Three other officers are charged with manslaughter, and the remaining officers face lesser charges including misconduct.
The defense lawyers and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby declined to comment on the autopsy.
Dr. Judy Melinek, a San Francisco pathologist, said that the homicide finding is consistent with the sequence of events described in the report and that it will be key evidence in the case.
But, she said, “the decision of whether the officers will be convicted of manslaughter or murder is for the jury.”
The key difference between the murder and manslaughter charges is whether the defendant acted with “malice,” or the intent to do harm. The precise meaning of that word is something the lawyers will argue, said defense attorney C. Justin Brown, who is not involved in the case.
Baltimore police convened a task force to study the case after Gray was injured and eventually zeroed in on Goodson as the only officer investigators believed could be criminally charged. Task force members said the charge that most likely fit in Goodson’s case was involuntary manslaughter.
The Baltimore Sun was granted special access to the task force’s investigation.
Police investigators consulted with the medical examiner who performed Gray’s autopsy, but the task force did not have access to a full autopsy during its investigation.
The task force turned over its report to Mosby hours before she announced charges against the officers. Mosby, who announced the charges two weeks after Gray’s death, relied on a separate team of investigators that included the Baltimore sheriff’s office.
The officers have since been indicted and pleaded not guilty. A trial has been set for October.
The full autopsy report offers an explanation why Mosby sought a broader set of charges than police recommended, analysts said.
The autopsy report does not cite any pre-existing injuries and determines that Gray was not hurt during his initial stop by two bicycle officers. The report instead focuses on what happened during the van’s drive around the Western District.
David Jaros, a University of Baltimore law professor, said that while the autopsy report can be challenged in court, it lays out a version of efforts that could help prosecutors prove the most serious charges in the case.
“The most logical theory of criminal liability is that Goodson recklessly caused the fatal injury during the drive and that the other officers are criminally liable because they failed in their duty to render or call for medical assistance,” he wrote in an email.
The medical examiner compared Gray’s neck injury to those suffered by someone who dives into a too-shallow pool of water and said that the injury was most likely caused by a sharp deceleration of the police van.
Wecht said it would require considerable force to so badly hurt an otherwise healthy young man, indicating some sort of “rough ride.” Jaros also said that as more evidence becomes public in the case, it becomes harder to avoid that conclusion.
“The more and more we learn, it seems consistent with that theory,” he said.
The autopsy also notes that Gray tested positive for opiates and cannabinoid when he was hospitalized. It’s unclear whether the drugs will become an issue in the criminal case.
Wecht said the drugs found in Gray’s system are not relevant to the case. Gray was not arrested for drugs — officers pursued him after he ran from them — and the drugs did not contribute to his death, Wecht said.
The medical examiner found that officers had a chance to intervene after Gray was hurt.
At a fourth stop Goodson made, for instance, Officer William G. Porter checked on Gray who “was asking for help, saying he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t get up and needed a medic,” the examiner wrote. Gray was already showing signs of a spinal cord injury by that point, according to the report.
Similarly, at a fifth stop, Sgt. Alicia D. White found Gray “lethargic with minimal responses to direct questions,” according to the autopsy.
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