Justin Fenton and Kevin Rector, Baltimore Sun, May 23, 2016
The judgment, which followed a five-day bench trial, is the first in the closely-watched case. Nero, 30, had faced four misdemeanor charges of second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and two counts of misconduct in office.
Prosecutors argued that Nero committed an assault by detaining Gray without justification, while the reckless endangerment charge related to Nero’s role in putting Gray into an arrest wagon without buckling a seat belt. In closing arguments Thursday, Williams had skeptically questioned prosecutors about their theory of assault, which legal experts said was unprecedented.
Williams on Monday said there were “no credible facts” to show that Nero was directly involved in Gray’s arrest, and said testimony showed Nero’s role in putting Gray in the van was minimized by the actions of others and not unreasonable given his training.
Nero leaned forward after the verdict was read and wiped his eyes. He hugged his attorneys.
Marc Zayon and Allison Levine, Nero’s attorneys, said Nero and his family “are elated that this nightmare is finally over.”
“The State’s Attorney for Baltimore City rushed to charge him, as well as the other five officers, completely disregarding the facts of the case and the applicable law,” the attorneys said in a statement. “His hope is that the State’s Attorney will re-evaluate the remaining five officers’ cases and dismiss their charges. Like Officer Nero, these officers have done nothing wrong.”
Prosecutors remain bound by a gag order and did not comment. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby did not attend the reading of the verdict, and a spokesperson did not respond to questions about her absence.
The state’s theory for the assault charge had been described by legal observers as “novel” or even “radical.” When the constitutionality of a police stop is questioned, the typical remedy is for charges to be dropped or evidence suppressed. Officers can also be sued.
But prosecutors sought to criminalize the interaction, with Deputy Chief State’s Attorney Janice Bledsoe remarking that people were “jacked up all the time” and that officers must justify all of their actions. Williams closely questioned prosecutors on the theory in closing arguments, but made no conclusion on it in finding Nero had no involvement.
Nero was the second of six city police officers charged in the case to stand trial. The first trial, of Officer William Porter, ended in a hung jury and mistrial last December. Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., who drove the transport van where Gray suffered fatal injuries, is slated to stand trial in two weeks for second-degree murder and related charges.
Zayon said there was no evidence to show Nero had received the new directive, and a sergeant testified that it had not been distributed or read at daily roll calls. Other officers testified that it is the van driver’s responsibility to ensure that a detainee is secure–audits performed in 2014 to ensure compliance targeted van drivers, not arresting officers.
Rice had climbed into the van to pull Gray in, while Nero helped with his legs and did not enter the van.
Williams said the law required him to judge the “reasonableness” of Nero’s actions, and he found it was not unreasonable for Nero to defer to supervisor’s determination about whether to belt Gray.
“There is no evidence that it was part of his training, or that a reasonable officer would do the same,” Williams said.
Outside, a small group of protesters decried the ruling, and pursued Nero’s family into a nearby parking garage with a crush of media in tow. Michael Belsky, an attorney for Rice, could be seen making a video recording of the incident.
Following the verdict, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called for “citizens to be patient.”