A Maryland appeals court postponed the trial of a police van driver charged with second-degree murder in the death of Freddie Gray, saying it needs to address whether another Baltimore officer should be compelled to testify against Caesar Goodson.
Jury selection for Goodson’s trial was supposed to start Monday. Prosecutors have indicated that testimony from Officer William Porter, whose trial ended in a hung jury last month, is crucial to their case against Goodson.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams, who is overseeing the trial, ruled last week that Porter must testify against Goodson despite Porter’s assertion that he has a right not to incriminate himself.
Porter’s trial is postponed indefinitely, pending further proceedings, including more written filings from both sides, followed by oral arguments before the Court of Special Appeals, Maryland courts spokeswoman Terri Charles said.
Gray died in April, a week after his neck was broken during a van ride. Goodson was with Gray for every second of his 45-minute trip from the site of his arrest to the Western District police station, where Gray arrived critically injured and unresponsive.
The trial could provide the public with its first chance to hear Goodson’s side of the story. He has not spoken with investigators or made any public comments.
He faces the most serious charge of the six officers charged – second-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. To be convicted, prosecutors must prove Goodson was so callous in his disregard for Gray’s life that he deliberately allowed him to die.
Since Porter’s case ended in a mistrial, the stakes for Goodson’s trial have grown in a city still on edge from the rioting and unrest in April.
Porter’s lawyers say he risks going to jail for contempt if he refuses an order to testify, but if he does testify, he could be charged with perjury if he makes any statements that differ from what he said or will say in his own defense.
Prosecutors say Porter has immunity at Goodson’s trial and they can’t use his statements against him later. But defense attorney Gary Proctor wrote in court documents: “The bell cannot be unrung.”
The judge himself acknowledged that he was entering “uncharted territory” before issuing his ruling last week.
His order is unprecedented in Maryland and could have tremendous implications for future cases with multiple defendants.
Criminal defense attorney Clarke Ahlers, a former Maryland police officer who is not involved in the Gray case, said if the appellate courts decide Porter doesn’t have to testify, prosecutors could try to gain Porter’s cooperation by offering him complete immunity. Or they could ask to re-try Porter first, or proceed without Porter’s testimony.
“I think there is some chance that the state may have to choose between prosecuting Porter and prosecuting Goodson,” he said.
Ahlers said the Court of Special Appeals could rule within 10 days, but either side could seek an opinion from the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, further delaying Goodson’s trial.
Gray’s death exposed the deep divide between the public and the police in Baltimore, and became a national symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Prosecutors say the officers should be held accountable for Gray’s fatal injuries because they left him handcuffed and shackled at the legs but unbuckled by a seatbelt, making him vulnerable to injury inside the metal compartment. Neither did they call an ambulance when he indicated he needed medical attention. Goodson, they say, bears the most responsibility because he drove the van, so Gray was technically in his custody.
Prosecutors have revealed little about their case against Goodson, but their witness list includes a former police officer who can describe “retaliatory prisoner transport practices,” suggesting they intend to raise the possibility that Gray was given a “rough ride” in the van.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors can’t comment because they are under a gag order.
Some experts say the case is particularly complicated given the murky circumstances of Gray’s death: nobody knows exactly how or when the man’s neck was broken. And the state could face an uphill battle without Porter’s testimony.
“There are just huge hurdles to being able to prove this case,” said David Jaros, an associate professor at University of Baltimore School of Law. “They need Porter’s testimony to prosecute Goodson, and it wouldn’t surprise me if early on in the process they offer Porter a deal to testify.”
Photo: Reuters/BRYAN WOOLSTON