Officer Caesar Goodson, Jr. is a free man.
A year after 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s life came to an end after he fell into a coma while in the back of a Baltimore police van and the city erupted, Goodson, 46, strode down the courthouse steps and into the next chapter of his life. That the 16-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department broke its policies in handling Gray is not in dispute. That Gray got into that van alive, only to be removed later with a devastating spinal injury, is a matter of fact.
Goodson was behind the wheel of the transport van and was accused of giving Gray what proved to be a fatal “rough ride.” Among the six police officers indicted by a grand jury, Goodson faced the heaviest charges, including second-degree depraved heart murder. Thursday, he became the second officer tried and acquitted of all charges in a bench trial before Circuit Judge Barry Williams.
If State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby is trying to represent a new generation in criminal justice reform or even a new chapter for Baltimore law enforcement by bringing charges against the officers in the first place, the new book is reading a lot like the old one—with experts erring little chance of a conviction in the remaining trials given the verdicts so far.
Baltimore officials, including Mosby, had to know what few will admit out loud: Getting a conviction would be next to impossible, especially in a system so reticent to see young men like Gray as victims.
“I think that this is a reminder that there is a shadow justice system for police officers,” said social justice activist and former Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay Mckesson. “This is a reminder that the work to make police officers accountable at the structure level must continue.”
In fact, there was never much chance that Goodson would ever have seen a day in prison, that a jury of twelve or a judge would ever sent him to the state penitentiary—not in a place like Baltimore nor almost any other place in America.
In all likelihood, those six police officers—five men and one woman—will walk away scot free. A third trial ended in a mistrial late last year. Prosecutors say they expect to re-try Officer William Porter. But there is little hope that Porter or the three remaining cops (they’ve all opted for bench, rather than jury, trials) will be convicted of anything. In fact, with the Goodson verdict, those cases are in jeopardy and they may never come to trial.
The officers involved may well have done of every single thing the public suspects: Intentionally placing an unsecured suspect in a metal-lined police van and then purposely finding every pothole and sharp turn along the way in an effort to send the shackled black man careening across the steel encasement. Then, according to prosecutors, they denied him immediate medical attention. Gray subsisted in a coma for a week until he died from his injuries.
Goodson reportedly had five separate chances to help Gray after his neck was broken and did nothing. His defense attorneys blamed the judgement of the other officers and even Gray himself, when it was Goodson who had the keys to the van.
Unfortunately, at least on some level, as a society we agree with the defense and think Gray deserved it. When they are black and poor, we are culturally prone to exact a moral examination of the victim.
Injustice is injustice no matter who it touches or who they were in the moments before. But we don’t believe that. He had to have done something wrong, right?
When all is said and done, a negotiated civil settlement—worth nearly $7 million—may be the only justice Freddie Gray’s family ever sees. The plain fact of the matter is that jurisdictions across the country—small and large—collectively pay millions to resolve police brutality cases. All the while, few officers are ever charged, tried, let alone convicted on criminal charges—even when the suspect dies, even when that suspect is unarmed.
Even when that suspect is helplessly shackled in the back of a recklessly driven police van.
The proliferation of video cameras has certainly meant more public inspection and, sure, a few more indictments. Prosecutors, who normally sail to re-election now face an additional layer of accountability. However, as the Eric Garner case demonstrates, video evidence can mean next to nothing in a grand jury room. Unfortunately, the same implicit bias that sometimes fuels the actions of officers also functions to protect them in the criminal justice system.
“The police understand how well they are protected from criminal liability,” Mckesson told The Daily Beast. “Clearly, Freddie Gray got into that van alive and left it with his spine severed and there are six people who contributed to that.”
For their part, Baltimore officials did not admit the officers were at fault. They didn’t have to. The money tells the story. However, if one listens closely, the criminal justice system is saying something else: This is all the justice we have.