Experts: Convictions will be tough to win in Baltimore case

Thousands Gather for Baltimore Rally

BALTIMORE (AP) -- Baltimore's top prosecutor acted swiftly in charging six officers in the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a grave spinal injury as he was arrested and put into a police transport van, handcuffed and without a seat belt.

But getting a jury to convict police officers of murder and manslaughter will be far harder than obtaining arrest warrants.

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Experts: Convictions will be tough to win in Baltimore case
TOPSHOT - A man walks past a mural with a portrait of Freddie Gray at North Mount and Presbury streets in the Sandtown neighborhood of west Baltimore on August 8, 2017. Baltimore, a city of 2.8 million, is troubled by drug use, poverty and racial segregation problems. In 2016 violent crime in Baltimore was up 22 percent and murders up 78 percent, according to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Baltimore Police Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr., Officer Edward M. Nero, Officer Garrett E Miller (top L-R), Officer William G. Porter, Lt. Brian W. Rice, Sgt. Alicia D. White (bottom L-R), are pictured in these undated booking photos provided by the Baltimore Police Department. Baltimore's top prosecutor on July 27, 2016 dropped remaining charges against police officers tied to the death of black detainee Freddie Gray, after failing four times to secure convictions in a case that inflamed the U.S. debate on race and justice. Courtesy Baltimore Police Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
BALTIMORE, MD- SEPTEMBER 02: Several protesters march and rally in downtown Baltimore. Some even blocked intersections impeding traffic. Today is the first hearing for six Baltimore police officers charged in the death Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland on September 02, 2015. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD- SEPTEMBER 02: Several protesters march and rally in downtown Baltimore. Some even blocked intersections impeding traffic. Today is the first hearing for six Baltimore police officers charged in the death Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland on September 02, 2015. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 02: City Sheriff's deputies form a perimeter around State's Attorney for Baltimore Marilyn Mosby (C) as she leaves the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse East where pre-trial hearings were held for six police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray September 2, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Earlier this year Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody and later died. His funeral was followed by rioting, looting and arson. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD- SEPTEMBER 02: Kwame Rose is arrested after he and several other protesters blocked various intersections in downtown Baltimore. The first hearing for six Baltimore police officers charged in the death Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland on September 02, 2015. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 02: A small and peaceful group of demonstrators gather to protest in front of the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse East where pre-trial hearings will be held for six police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray September 2, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Earlier this year Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody and later died. His funeral was followed by rioting, looting and arson. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 02: A Baltimore City Sheriff's deputy moves among a small crowd of peaceful demonstrators in front of the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse East where pre-trial hearings will be held for six police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray September 2, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Earlier this year Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody and later died. His funeral was followed by rioting, looting and arson. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 02: A small and peacful group of demonstrators gather to protest in front of the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse East where pre-trial hearings will be held for six police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray September 2, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Earlier this year Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody and later died. His funeral was followed by rioting, looting and arson. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 01: Protesters march through the streets in support of Maryland state attorney Marilyn Mosby's announcement that charges would be filed against Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray on May 1, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray died in police custody after being arrested on April 12, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 01: Protesters march through the streets in support of Maryland state attorney Marilyn Mosby's announcement that charges would be filed against Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray on May 1, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray died in police custody after being arrested on April 12, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 01: Protesters march on North Avenue after Baltimore authorities released a report on the death of Freddie Gray on May 1, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore City state's attorney, ruled the death of Freddie Gray a homicide and that criminal charges will be filed. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 02: A man tears up on the street at North Ave., and Pennsylvania Ave., in West Baltimore a day after Baltimore authorities released a report on the death of Freddie Gray, May 2, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore City state's attorney, ruled the death of Freddie Gray a homicide and that criminal charges would be filed against six Baltimore City Police officers. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife on April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 02: People participate in a dance party on North Ave., a day after Baltimore authorities released a report on the death of Freddie Gray, May 2, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore City state's attorney, ruled the death of Freddie Gray a homicide and that criminal charges would be filed against six Baltimore City Police officers. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife on April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 02: People participate in a dance party on North Ave., on the street a day after Baltimore authorities released a report on the death of Freddie Gray, May 2, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore City state's attorney, ruled the death of Freddie Gray a homicide and that criminal charges would be filed against six Baltimore City Police officers. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife on April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 02: Protesters march on the street from City Hall a day after Baltimore authorities released a report on the death of Freddie Gray, May 2, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore City state's attorney, ruled the death of Freddie Gray a homicide and that criminal charges would be filed against six Baltimore City Police officers. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife on April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 01: Protesters march through the streets in support of Maryland state attorney Marilyn Mosby's announcement that charges would be filed against Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray on May 1, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray died in police custody after being arrested on April 12, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
People arrive at Freddie Gray's funeral at New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore April 27, 2015. Mourners lined up on Monday before the funeral of Freddie Gray, a Baltimore black man who died in police custody, a death that has led to protests in the latest outcry over U.S. law enforcement's treatment of minorities. Police say he died of a neck injury on April 19 after being arrested on April 12. REUTERS/Sait Serkan Gurbuz
Freddie Gray's casket arrives at New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore April 27, 2015. Mourners lined up on Monday before the funeral of Freddie Gray, a Baltimore black man who died in police custody, a death that has led to protests in the latest outcry over U.S. law enforcement's treatment of minorities. Police say he died of a neck injury on April 19 after being arrested on April 12. REUTERS/Sait Serkan Gurbuz
A woman cries as demonstrators throw rocks at Baltimore police during clashes in Baltimore, Maryland April 27, 2015. Seven Baltimore police officers were injured on Monday as rioters threw bricks and stones and burned patrol cars in violent protests after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in police custody. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
A member of the family reacts during Freddie Gray's funeral service at New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore April 27, 2015. Mourners lined up on Monday before the funeral of Freddie Gray, a Baltimore black man who died in police custody, a death that has led to protests in the latest outcry over U.S. law enforcement's treatment of minorities. Police say he died of a neck injury on April 19 after being arrested on April 12. REUTERS/Sait Serkan Gurbuz
A woman with goods looted from a store runs past burning vehicles during clashes in Baltimore, Maryland April 27, 2015. Seven Baltimore police officers were injured on Monday as rioters threw bricks and stones and burned patrol cars in violent protests after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in police custody. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
A Baltimore firefighter attacks a fire at a convenience store and residence during clashes after the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland in the early morning hours of April 28, 2015. Baltimore erupted in violence as hundreds of rioters looted stores, burned buildings and injured at least 15 police officers following the funeral of Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died after he was injured in police custody. REUTERS/Eric Thayer TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Reverend Jesse Jackson speaks to the members of national media near the CVS Pharmacy building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore April 28, 2015. Hundreds of rioters looted businesses and set buildings on fire, including the pharmacy, in Baltimore on Monday in widespread violence that injured at least 15 police officers following the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died after he was injured in police custody. REUTERS/Sait Serkan Gurbuz
Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby (C) leaves the courthouse after the first day of pretrial motions for six police officers charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S. on September 2, 2015. Baltimore's top prosecutor on July 27, 2016 dropped remaining charges against police officers tied to the death of black detainee Freddie Gray, after failing four times to secure convictions in a case that inflamed the U.S. debate on race and justice. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston/File Photo
Demonstrators protest outside of the Baltimore Police Department's Western District police station during a rally for Freddie Gray, in Baltimore, April 21, 2015. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Baltimore on Tuesday to protest the death of the 27-year-old black man who died after being arrested by local police. The U.S. Justice Department is looking into the case of Gray, who was arrested on April 12 and died a week later in a hospital after slipping into a coma, a spokeswoman said. A preliminary autopsy showed Gray died from a spinal injury. REUTERS/Jose Luis Magana
Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake speaks as U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) looks on during a news conference on the demonstrations for Freddie Gray, who died following an arrest by the Baltimore police department, in Baltimore, Maryland April 26, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
A demonstrator looks up after being sprayed with pepper spray during clashes in Baltimore, Maryland April 27, 2015. Several Baltimore police officers were injured on Monday in violent clashes with young people after the funeral of a black man, Freddie Gray, who died in police custody, and local law enforcement warned of a threat by gangs. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: National Guard soldiers stand guard in downtown Baltimore outside the Harborplace mall as a bicycle rider goes by. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 22: People chant and shout as they march through the streets of Baltimore for Freddie Gray, a Baltimore man who died a week after suffering a spinal-cord injury while in police custody, near the site of Gray's arrest close to the corner of Presbury Street and North Mount Street in Baltimore, MD on Wednesday April 22, 2015. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 22: People chant and shout as they lay down to stop traffic during their march through the streets of Baltimore for Freddie Gray, a Baltimore man who died a week after suffering a spinal-cord injury while in police custody, near the site of Gray's arrest close to the corner of Presbury Street and North Mount Street in Baltimore, MD on Wednesday April 22, 2015. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, USA - APRIL 22: A kid raises his hand while hundreds of people march through the streets of Baltimore to seek justice for the death for Freddie Gray who died from injuries suffered in Police custody in Baltimore, USA on April 22, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, USA - APRIL 23: Protestors and police clash as hundreds of people march through the streets of Baltimore to seek justice for the death for Freddie Gray who died from injuries suffered in Police custody in Baltimore, USA on April 23, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Legal experts say the case is fraught with challenges. The widely shown video that captured the nation's attention shows Gray, 25, being loaded into a police transport van, but not what happened once he was inside. Other than the accused officers, the only known witness is a convicted criminal later placed in the van's other holding cell, unable to see what was happening with Gray.

State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced the charges Friday amid the backdrop of a city in turmoil - four days after public anger over Gray's death triggered riots, with heavily armed troops enforcing a nightly curfew, and the day before scheduled protest marches expected to draw thousands.

By bringing charges less than two weeks after Gray's death, Mosby, 35, said her decision showed "no one is above the law."

"To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America: I heard your call for `No justice, no peace,'" the prosecutor said. "Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man."

Within hours, the city's police union questioned the prosecutor's impartiality, accusing her of a rush to judgment and demanding she recuse herself from the case. Even some of those who support Mosby's stand worry further violence might erupt if she fails to win convictions.

Alan Dershowitz, a well-known criminal lawyer from New York and professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, suggested that Mosley's actions were motivated more by political expediency and short-term public safety than strong evidence. He called the charges "outrageous and irresponsible," especially the second degree murder count filed against the van's driver under a legal principle known as "depraved heart."

"The decision to file charges was made not based on considerations of justice, but on considerations of crowd control," Dershowitz said Saturday.

Regardless of the motivation, the announcement of the charges did immediately shift the prevailing mood on the city's streets from one of rage to relief.

To win a conviction, city prosecutors will have to convince a jury that transport van driver Caesar Goodson acted so recklessly that he knew his actions could take Gray's life.

The classic example often taught in law schools is that a person who drops a flower pot off the balcony of a skyscraper onto a busy sidewalk below, or someone who fires a gun into a crowded bus.

"That's really the sort of shocking charge," said Andrew Alperstein, a Baltimore defense attorney and former prosecutor.

Across the nation, it is very rare for law enforcement officers to be charged following fatal encounters with suspects, much less convicted by jurors often predisposed to give extra weight and credibility to the accounts provided by police.

Mosley's speediness in ordering the officers' arrests stands in stark contrast to the slow pace of the investigations that resulted in no criminal charges against the officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Fergusson, Missouri, or Eric Garner in New York City. Mosby also does not have the benefit of a video capturing a decisive moment where lethal force was used, such as the video showing a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer shooting a fleeing Walter Scott multiple times in the back. Despite initial claims by authorities that the shooting was in self-defense, the officer was quickly charged with murder after the video was provided to the media.

In the Gray case, the video evidence is much murkier, with no visual evidence the officers purposely beat him. Expert witnesses are likely to disagree on whether Gray was seriously injured when the Baltimore officers pinned him to the sidewalk and cuffed his hands behind his back. Gray was recorded asking for medical assistance as he was hefted into the waiting van, his feet dragging along behind him.

In her statement of facts, Mosley alleged the officers later also bound Gray's feet together and placed him in the van face-down, rather than buckling him into a seat belt as required by departmental procedures. That would have left Gray unable to brace himself as he slide around on the floor as the van traveled through Baltimore. She also recounted the multiple stops made by the van, even after it likely became clear Mosley was in distress. Nearly an hour passed before Gray received any medical attention.

However, the prosecutor steered clear of specifically alleging Goodson took Mosely on a "Rough Ride," the term commonly applied in Baltimore to the practice of the driver making quick stops and sharp turns so as to slam the prisoner around in the back of the van.

Glenn Ivey, a defense attorney and the former chief prosecutor in Prince George's County, Maryland, said Mosby's prosecution would likely be considered successful if she were to secure any felony conviction against the officers that results in lengthy terms in prison. Second-degree assault carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.

"Typically in police cases, if you get a conviction on almost any of the charges, it's viewed as successful, because police cases are hard to win," he said.

Even in Baltimore city, where juries tend to be skeptical of police officers, they can still make compelling defendants and persuasive witnesses, said Ivey, who is currently a candidate for Congress in Maryland's Washington suburbs.

During his tenure as a prosecutor, Ivey secured a 45-year sentence against a county homeland security official and former police officer in the shooting of two furniture deliverymen at his home, a rare case in which a law enforcement officer was charged with murder. Keith Washington was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

Andrew Levy, a longtime Baltimore defense attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said lawyers could argue that their individual clients cannot be held responsible for Gray's death.

"If you dissect this from the initial pursuit to the initial detention to the arrest to the transfer to the vehicle, that's a pretty complicated timeline and I think we're going to hear lots of defense from individuals basically that will distill down to, `It wasn't my job. I was just following orders,'" Levy said. "Those are not frivolous defenses in a context like this. Not everybody is necessarily responsible for everything."

Defense attorneys for the officers will likely use Mosley's own public statements about the case against her in requests that the venue for the trial be moved outside of Baltimore. Though such changes of venue are relatively rare, there have been several examples of such motions being granted in cases that have garnered intense media coverage or where local officials are deemed to have made public statements that could unfairly influence potential jurors.

An example where that happened was the prosecution of the police officers acquitted in the 1991 video-taped beating of Rodney King. The trial was moved from inter-city Los Angeles to a much-less racially diverse suburb, where a jury acquitted the lawmen - triggering violent riots that left wide swaths of the city smoldering.

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