Edward Nero, a Baltimore police officer, was acquitted Monday of assault and all other charges in the case of Freddie Gray, an African American who died in custody last year, sparking riots and fueling debate about US police brutality.
The verdict handed down by a Baltimore judge found him not guilty of second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.
Outside the courthouse, a crowd of about a dozen protesters greeted the verdict with chants of “No Justice, No Peace.”
The 25-year-old Gray was arrested April 12, 2015 after fleeing at the sight of police, and suffered a snapped spine while being transported unrestrained in the back of a Baltimore police van. He died a week later.
The six police officers being tried over his death — three white and three African Americans, including a woman — claim it was an accident.
Nero’s is the second case to come to court. The first ended in a hung jury in December.
The verdict on each count “is not guilty,” said Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams.
Nero, 30, appeared to wipe his eyes, and hugged his attorneys.
The officer, who is white, chose to be tried by a judge rather than a jury. Judge Williams is black, as are two-thirds of the people of Baltimore, including its Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Williams rejected the state’s argument that the defendant acted corruptly or with intent regarding any of the charges made by the state of Maryland.
As for the charge of reckless endangerment, Williams said the state failed to prove that Nero was negligent in preventing Gray from being put in a dangerous position. He said this applies both to when Gray was arrested and to when he was handcuffed, shackled and placed in a police van.
Williams also rejected prosecutors’ charges that Nero arrested Gray without justification and assaulted Gray during the arrest. The judge stated that Nero was not the officer that arrested Gray and that “contact by the defendant was legally justified” during the course of the arrest and placement in the van.
Officer Garrett Miller testified during the five-day trial that he alone took Gray into custody after a police chase.
In perhaps the most contentious area of the Nero case, the failure to secure Gray with a seat belt in the police van, Williams said other officers were inside the van preparing for Gray’s transport and that an officer in Nero’s position could “reasonably assume” that his colleagues would do their job in securing Gray properly.
The mayor acknowledged the verdict, saying it would be followed by a police review and urging citizens to let the process run its course.
“This is our American system of justice and police officers must be afforded the same justice system as every other citizen in this city, state and country,” Rawlings-Blake said in a statement.
“Now that the criminal case has come to an end, Officer Nero will face an administrative review by the Police Department.
“We once again ask the citizens to be patient and to allow the entire process to come to a conclusion. In the case of any disturbance in the city, we are prepared to respond.”
The next Gray-related trial will be of Officer Caesar Goodson Jr, the driver of the van used to transport Gray. His trial is set to begin June 6, according to the Baltimore Sun.