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Jury selection in officer's trial offers look at life in Baltimore

Protesters hold signs outside the Mitchell Courthouse on the first day of the trial of Officer William Porter on Monday in Baltimore. [Baltimore Sun/TNS]
Published Dec. 1, 2015

BALTIMORE — As jury selection opened Monday in the trial of the first of six police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, more than half of roughly 75 potential jurors told a judge that they or their immediate family members had been either a victim of crime, investigated, charged or incarcerated.

Judge Barry Williams of Baltimore City Circuit Court spent about 45 minutes in open court questioning a racially mixed pool of potential jurors in the case of Officer William Porter, who has pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and other charges in the death of Gray, a 25-year-old black man.

It was the first step in a process that later moved behind closed doors, with the judge continuing questions in private. A fresh group of 75 potential jurors is expected today, with opening arguments unlikely until Wednesday at the earliest.

The judge's questions — and the jury pool's answers — offered a glimpse of life in Baltimore, a majority black city with a high crime rate and a Police Department that engenders mistrust in poor neighborhoods. About a third indicated they had "strong feelings" about crimes including police misconduct; roughly a half-dozen said they would be "inclined to give either more or less weight" to the testimony of a police officer.

"You're having a Baltimore jury selected in this case, and that's perhaps the greatest assurance that the community will accept the verdict — whatever the jury decides," said professor Douglas Colbert of the University of Maryland's law school, who is attending the proceedings. "Baltimore has lived this case."

Gray's death, of a spinal cord injury suffered in police custody, set off riots here in April, prompting Gov. Larry Hogan to call in the National Guard and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to impose a five-day curfew. Nationally, Black Lives Matter activists are watching the trial closely and view it as a test of the criminal justice system.

Porter, who is black, is accused of ignoring Gray's pleas for medical help, and of failing to buckle him properly into a police transport van, in violation of the department's seat belt regulations. He was not in court for most of the pretrial proceedings but was present Monday.

His trial could have an impact on the trials of the other officers, set for next year; legal experts say that if Porter is acquitted, it will be much harder for prosecutors to convict the other five.

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