Freddie Gray verdict: Officer Edward Nero not guilty

— Perhaps no one found Baltimore police Officer Edward Nero’s not-guilty verdict Monday so surprising.

But to hear the families of Nero and of Freddie Gray, the young black man who Nero was accused of assaulting, both lauding the judge who handed down the decision? Surely no one saw that coming.

While Nero released a statement saying he and his family were “elated” with the ruling, Gray family attorney Billy Murphy, too, applauded the decision, saying, “You can’t convict people unless you know the evidence,” and that Judge Barry Williams had followed the law as he saw it.

After a bench trial, Williams found Nero not guilty of all charges in connection with Gray’s death last year.

Williams took 20 minutes to read the decision to a packed courtroom and near-capacity overflow room. Wearing a dark, three-piece suit and tie, Nero nodded as Williams said there was no evidence to support each individual charge and tilted his head back in relief after the judge read the verdict. He then put his head down and sobbed.

Nero, one of six officers charged and the second to be tried in the Gray case, was accused of second-degree intentional assault, two counts of misconduct in office and reckless endangerment.

Nero was one of three bike officers involved in the initial police encounter with Gray that day in April 2015.

About a dozen or so protesters surrounded and chanted at Nero’s brother as he left the court. Sheriff’s deputies escorted him into a parking garage.

The verdict, which drew mostly outrage on social media but praise from police and the Gray family attorney, brings perhaps only a sliver of resolution to a city that seethed with unrest over the death last year of the 25-year-old prisoner. Four more officers’ trials are slated to take place.

Praise on both ends

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3, said in a statement that Nero was pleased with the verdict but concerned that five other officers, Nero’s “good friends, must continue to fight these baseless accusations.”

Ryan accused State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby of leveling charges not as the product of a “meaningful investigation” but as a response to riots in the city after Gray’s death. in the process, she “destroyed six lives,” Ryan said, as well as the relationship between the Baltimore Police Department and her office.

“None of these Officers did anything wrong,” Ryan said in his statement. “Officer Nero is relieved that for him, this nightmare is nearing an end. Being falsely charged with a crime, and being prosecuted for reasons that have nothing to do with justice, is a horror that no person should ever have to endure.”

A statement from Nero’s lawyer echoed some of the same points and also used the word “nightmare” to describe Nero’s prosecution.

“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. Officer Nero is appreciative of the reasoned judgment that Judge Barry Williams applied in his ruling,” said the statement from defense attorney Marc Zayon.

Nero’s father, Edward Nero Sr., told CNN affiliate WSVN that the verdict was a victory not only for his son but for all police.

“I believe it allowed the police officers to do their job, and if he was found guilty, I believe many officers would have been hesitant to do the right thing when it came time to dealing with crime because they would be afraid to be prosecuted,” he told the station.

A police statement said Nero will remain on administrative capacity during the investigations, which won’t be completed until the last officer’s trial ends because the officers may be called as witnesses in their co-defendants’ cases.

Gray family attorney Murphy applauded Williams, saying that, as an African-American judge, “he did not bend to that pressure” from the black community, many of whom wanted to see Nero convicted as an emotional response to Gray’s death. The family might not be pleased with the verdict, he said, but they respect the rule of law.

“You couldn’t ask for a more fair-minded judge than Barry Williams,” Murphy said. “I hope (the ruling is) going to be received with equanimity.”

On a wider scale, posts on social media expressed mostly disdain for the verdict, with a smattering of approval. While one user wrote that he felt “justice prevailed in the face of Obama’s lawless regime,” others, including writer and activist Shaun King, felt the verdict represented anything but.

Writing on wall?

Williams’ line of questioning during trial last week may have been a harbinger of the final outcome. He challenged prosecutors’ claim that the takedown and subsequent arrest of Gray without probable cause amounted to a criminal assault.

The verdict comes more than a year after Gray’s death on April 19, 2015, became a symbol of the black community’s distrust of police and triggered days of violent protests. Gray was black. Three of the officers charged are white, three are black.

Closing arguments concluded Thursday.

Community leaders and elected officials have appealed for calm. The citizens of Baltimore had demanded justice, they said, and that process is playing itself out.

“Whatever may be Judge Barry Williams’ decision with respect to Officer Nero’s role in the death of Mr. Freddie Gray, that verdict will have as much legitimacy as our society and our justice system can provide,” Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings said last week.

“I join the mothers, the fathers, the children … of Baltimore asking not only for peace but respect for the rule of law.”

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Nero was afforded the same justice any U.S. citizen would receive and issued a warning to those who would use the officer’s vindication as a cause to stoke unrest beyond peaceful protests.

“We once again ask the citizens to be patient and to allow the entire process to come to a conclusion,” she said. “In the case of any disturbance in the city, we are prepared to respond. We will protect our neighborhoods, our businesses and the people of our city.”

Though some expected protests, it appears that there were no large gatherings as of late Monday evening.

‘It could be a hug’

Nero was charged with second-degree assault for allegedly touching Gray during an arrest that prosecutors said was illegal. He also faced two counts of misconduct, as well as reckless endangerment for not putting a seat belt on Gray when he put the prisoner in a police van.

Gray died from spinal injuries after being shackled without a seat belt in the van.

Williams last week aggressively questioned prosecutors about their assertion that Nero and other officers assaulted Gray by touching him without reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

Prosecutor Janice Bledsoe argued that searching and handcuffing Gray constituted an assault.

“You are saying an arrest without probable cause is a misconduct-in-office charge — is a crime?” the judge asked. “So you say if you arrest someone without probable cause, it’s a crime?”

“Yes,” Bledsoe responded.

Williams at one point said: “If you touch someone, it could be assault, it could be a hug.”

Michael Schatzow, chief deputy state’s attorney, later told the judge that “not every arrest that occurs without probable cause is a crime.” But he added that arrests in which the actions of the officer “are not objectively reasonable” are criminal.

The prosecutor said Nero and his partner turned a routine stop based on reasonable suspicion of a crime into a full-blown arrest requiring probable cause.

Ultimately, Williams decided that Nero neither arrested nor detained Gray, that Nero had no duty to question the officer who arrested Gray or the officers in the van who should have placed a seat belt on Gray and it wasn’t clear if Nero had received orders or training on securing prisoners in transport vans.

We or he?

In her closing, Bledsoe cited statements in which Nero and his partner both used the word “we” to describe putting Gray on the ground and handcuffing him.

Nero’s partner, Officer Garrett Miller, testified that he detained Gray himself. The state compelled Miller — who’s awaiting trial — to take the stand against Nero with immunity, meaning his testimony cannot be used to incriminate him at his trial.

Bledsoe also told the court that Nero ignored a general order for officers to secure suspects in vans with seat belts.

Defense attorney Marc Zayon said in his closing argument that Nero acted legally and that handcuffing someone who ran from the police was “the right thing to do.”

Zayon said Nero and Miller used the term “we” because they considered themselves a team.

The only time Nero touched Gray was when the suspect asked for his inhaler, Zayon said.

The defense argued there was no proof Nero had read an email about the seat belt order, and that the state had failed to show he had a duty to secure Gray. Zayon said it was the responsibility of the van driver to put a seat belt on the prisoner.

Prosecutors have said that Gray complained of having trouble breathing and asked for medical help as he was driven in the van. When he arrived at a police substation, he was unconscious.

A week later, Gray died at a hospital from his spinal injury.

The case against William Porter, the first officer to go on trial, ended in a mistrial in December after jurors couldn’t agree on a verdict.

What’s next?

Four officers have yet to stand trial — Miller, Lt. Brian Rice, Sgt. Alicia White and Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. The trial for Goodson, the van driver, will start June 6.

Rice’s will start July 5, Miller’s July 27 and White’s on October 13.

Porter will likely face a retrial on June 13.

CNN’s Ray Sanchez, Kristina Sgueglia, Miguel Marquez, Joshua Berlinger and David Williams contributed to this report.

In William Porter trial, experts disagree on when Freddie Gray injured

— Freddie Gray’s fatal neck injury could not have happened before the police van’s fourth stop, as alleged by the prosecution, a neurosurgeon called by Baltimore police Officer William Porter’s defense team testified Thursday.

Porter, 26, is the first of six officers to face trial in Gray’s April death, and the timing of the 25-year-old’s fatal neck injury is key because Porter has testified that Gray didn’t ask to be transported to the hospital until the fourth of six stops along the 45-minute ride to the police station. Porter relayed the information to the driver, he testified Wednesday, but he didn’t call a medic because Gray didn’t appear injured and didn’t articulate what was wrong.

On the stand Thursday, Dr. Matthew Ammerman told the court that Gray’s injury was not survivable and that it would have immediately brought Gray’s ability to breathe and speak to a halt, rather than affecting him progressively.

“I believe he had a complete spinal cord injury at the time of injury,” Ammerman said. “He couldn’t say he is short of breath (after the injury) because he couldn’t speak.”

Experts disagree

Ammerman — who acknowledged he was being paid $10,000 for his testimony, plus $4,000 to $6,000 for his review of records — further testified he was aware of previous expert testimony that Gray might have survived if he’d received prompt treatment, but he did not concur.

“I believe that, unfortunately, with these types of spinal cord injuries, the result is death,” the neurosurgeon said.

As for the state’s contention that Gray had a seizure between the fifth and sixth stops — thus allegedly explaining the banging that Donta Allen, another detainee in the van, reportedly heard — Ammerman said, “I just don’t see how a patient could move their head with that type of injury.”

A previous defense witness, Dr. Vincent Di Maio, a forensic pathologist, testified he believes Gray’s fatal injury happened later — between the van’s fifth and sixth stops. A medic was called during the sixth stop.

Di Maio also said that he believed Gray’s death should’ve been deemed accidental, despite Dr. Carol Allan, the assistant state medical examiner, testifying Monday that she classified Gray’s death as a homicide because of the delay in getting him medical attention. She also asserted that Gray suffered his neck injury between the van’s second and fourth stops, probably when the van stopped suddenly.

Prosecutors allege Porter did not promptly summon medical assistance for Gray, nor did he buckle him into a seat belt, as was department policy.

Officer took stand

Porter contended during his four-hour testimony Wednesday that of the roughly 150 prisoners he has placed in a police wagon since joining the Baltimore Police Department in 2010, none was secured with a seat belt — in part, out of concern for officers’ safety while in the wagon’s tight quarters. Prisoners were never secured with seat belts during field training, and though cadets were instructed to secure prisoners with seat belts, they were not shown how, Porter said.

“It is the responsibility of the wagon driver to get the prisoner from point A to point B,” he told the jury.

Porter testified he and another officer attempted to assist Gray after finding him in the back of the police van with mucus around his nose and mouth.

They placed Gray in a “lifesaving position” and waited for what “felt like an eternity” for a medic to arrive, Porter told the jury.

The officer said he never believed Gray needed immediate medical attention until the final stop. Asked whether Gray said he couldn’t breathe, Porter replied, “Absolutely not.”

“Are you sorry Freddie Gray died?” one of his lawyers asked.

“Absolutely,” said Porter, explaining he knew Gray from the West Baltimore neighborhood he was charged with patrolling.

“Freddie Gray and I weren’t friends, but we had a mutual respect,” Porter said. “Any kind of loss of life, I’m sorry to see that.”

A call for calm

Authorities say Gray broke his neck April 12 while being transported in a police van, shackled but not wearing a seat belt. He died a week later. The prosecution rested its case Tuesday.

“This defendant did nothing to get him a medic or get him to the hospital. He did nothing when he could have saved a man’s life,” State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow has said in court.

Porter has pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment.

Gray’s death has sparked outrage and demonstrations, some of which were plagued by arson, vandalism and looting despite his family’s pleas for peace.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake joined Police Commissioner Kevin Davis at a news conference Wednesday to ask the public to respect the judicial process.

“Whether you agree or whether you disagree with the jury’s ultimate verdict, our reaction needs to be one of respect in Baltimore’s neighborhoods, and the residents and businesses who make up our city should reflect that respect,” she said.

The trial is expected to end by December 17.

CNN’s Jason Hanna, Ray Sanchez, Mark Morgenstein, Carolyn Sung, Jean Casarez and Ann O’Neill contributed to this report.