Officer Ceasar Goodson opts for bench trial in Freddie Gray case

Yesterday I looked at the trial of Baltimore Police Officer Ceasar Goodson which is set to begin this week regarding the death of Freddie Gray. As I noted at the time, perhaps the biggest question to be answered was whether Goodson’s defense team would opt for a jury trial or a bench trial. Sources reported to be close to Goodson claimed that they were leaning toward allowing a jury to decide his fate, but that prediction was proven false last night. NBC News reports that Goodson has decided to let the judge make the call.

Caesar Goodson, the police van driver in the Freddie Gray case, opted for a bench trial on Monday in the high stakes and racially charged case which shone a spotlight on the tension between law enforcement and the minority communities they serve.

The stakes are high in the upcoming trial for Goodson who prosecutors say bears the most responsibility for the death of Gray, a young black man whose spine was snapped in the back of a police transport wagon. The trial is slated to start on Thursday.

Officer Goodson, faces second-degree murder and other charges. He will also face buck-passing from fellow officers who have already testified in two previous trials that if anyone was responsible for ensuring Gray’s safety, it was him.

This is a rather curious call on Goodson’s part and it’s possible that he saw this as a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. He would obviously view the ideal resolution to be an acquittal on all charges with no subsequent jail time or other penalties, but he has to balance that against the potential threat of a very long jail sentence on the most serious charge of murder. If he secured a jury with at least some members who would find the charges implausible he could hope for a hung jury and potentially walk out with no convictions, but a very angry group of locals who are distrustful of the police department might choose to send him up on all of them. The judge, on the other hand, may find it very hard to swallow the murder charge, but still find him negligent and hand down some sort of jail time. Perhaps Goodson simply couldn’t be convinced of his chances of seating a favorable jury.

As to the man who will be making those decisions, the case is being heard by Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams. Baltimore court watchers are describing him as a tough but fair jurist who will make the state prove every facet of every charge before rendering a verdict. He’s already been at work on pre-trial motions this week, as reported locally by WBAL TV.

Williams denied a defense motion to dismiss charges based on Goodson’s inability to receive a speedy trial, saying the delays in the case were “reasonable.” Williams also allowed information on Gray’s autopsy to be introduced and kept a second-degree assault charge in place.

However, Williams did grant the defense motion to eliminate “hearsay” statements Officer William Porter made to an internal affairs detective.

We shouldn’t read too much into this portion of the case, but it seems as if the judge is taking a very businesslike approach to what are quite routine motions. Obviously the defense would like to have some of the charges dismissed out of hand, but Williams wasn’t going along with that. Nor is he barring what is clearly relevant evidence in the form of autopsy results. But he was willing to bar hearsay evidence as inadmissible which may be a hopeful sign for Goodson. There were previous allegations of fellow officer William Porter telling another detective that Freddie Gray “couldn’t breath” during a telephone conversation. The state wanted to use that statement at trial, but Porter himself denied saying it during his own trial, so Williams rejected it has hearsay.

The actual trial will kick off on Thursday and is expected to last for a couple of weeks.