Human Rights

Freddie Gray Denied Justice—and the Whole Damn System Is to Blame

Gray's death was ruled a homicide, but according to the justice system, no one is responsible.

Photo Credit: vincenzo mancuso / Shutterstock.com

“You’re more likely to be convicted of a crime you didn’t commit than a cop is for one they did,” Son of Nun, a Baltimore-based rapper, organizer and Firebrand Records artist, told AlterNet. “I have no faith in this nation’s legal system, how can I when it’s legal to deny people justice? If we can figure out how to put a robot on mars, then we can figure out how to hold police accountable. It’s only complicated if you’re complicit.”

Son of Nun is one of countless Baltimore residents reeling from Wednesday’s news that, following a hung jury and three acquittals, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby is dropping all charges against six police officers for the killing of Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old black man was violently arrested in April 2015 on highly questionable grounds. While in police custody, his spinal chord was 80 percent severed and voice box crushed, placing him in a coma and killing him one week later. The state medical examiner determined last summer that Gray’s death was a homicide, but now—according to the justice system—no one is responsible.

The killing of Gray touched off a sustained uprising in a city plagued by police brutality, including a high rate of killings, as well as profound economic inequalities that fall largely along race lines. Mosby, considered a champion for law enforcement accountability by some, in fact had instructed police to escalate drug enforcement patrols in the very neighborhood where Gray was arrested roughly three weeks before he was picked up and killed, Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector revealed last June. "State's Attorney Mosby asked me to look into community concerns regarding drug dealing in the area of North Ave and Mount St," Joshua Rosenblatt, division chief of Mosby's Crime Strategies Unit, wrote in a March 17, 2015 internal email, according to Rector’s reporting.

Mosby was targeting a neighborhood that is predominantly black and plagued by poverty. According to a report released in 2015 by the Justice Policy Institute and Prison Policy Initiative, in the Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park area where Gray lived, recent figures show that the majority of residents don't have jobs and 7.4  percent of all children aged six and under have elevated lead levels in their blood.

However, now Mosby has been forced to admit that she is powerless to hold these same officers to account for grave misdeeds against that community. “After much thought and prayer,” she announced Wednesday, “it has become clear that without being able to work with an independent investigatory agency from the very start, without having a say in the election of whether cases proceed in front of a judge or jury, without communal oversight of police in this community, without substantive reforms to the current criminal justice system, we could try this case 100 times just like it and we would still end up with the same result.”

Here is how Son of Nun put it: “Freddie Gray lived in an economically sabotaged neighborhood and had recently won a lead exposure settlement before being murdered by police. His life was stunted by the legacy of redlining and racially disparate housing code enforcement, and then it was cut short by the racist drug war.”

Racial justice and human rights organizations—from the NAACP to Amnesty International—expressed disappointment that all police officers charged in the case will walk. “Until widespread reform of lethal force laws happen, families will not be able to have faith that anyone will be held accountable for their loved ones’ deaths,” said Rachel Ward, managing director of the research unit of Amnesty International USA.

The fact that the charges were dropped in such a high-profile case has provoked anger, particularly among those who have directly suffered from police violence. Mark Puente of the Baltimore Sun reported in September 2014 that the city has been forced to shell out roughly $5.7 million since 2011 to more than 100 people, most of them African American, as restitution for police beatings. “Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson,” wrote Puente.

Tawanda Jones lost her brother, Tyrone West, in July 2013. He was picked up during a traffic stop and died in police custody while he was handcuffed, yet not a single officer has been charged for his killing. Jones, who has spent the years since holding vigils and protests demanding justice for her brother, told AlterNet that she was “shocked” and “disappointed,” but “really not surprised,” when she heard that all charges had been dropped in the Freddie Gray case.

“The justice system does not work when there are police involved,” said Jones, who is now active with the grassroots organizations Baltimore BLOC and the Justice for Tyrone West Coalition. “When my brother was brutally murdered, we didn’t even get the chance to go through the due process of the law. I am still beating myself down just to make sure police get charged. My family doesn’t know what justice feels like. There is no justice, there is just us.”

Richard Shipley, Freddie Gray’s father, also expressed outrage Wednesday, declaring at a press conference, “We are pissed about the decision of the trials and the outcome of all of the trials that have happened here in this city.” Gray’s family reached a $6.4 million settlement with the city over civil claims last year.

Prosecutors were unable to win a single conviction even for misconduct or wrongful arrest, in keeping with city, state and nationwide trends. According to the ACLU of Maryland, between 2010 and 2014, at least 109 people in Maryland—69 percent of them black—died as a result of their interactions with police. The legal organization notes that “police officers were criminally charged in less than two percent of the 109 cases.”

David Jaros, a University of Baltimore law professor who has been observing the trials, told AlterNet that one of the “bitter ironies” is that the officers may have been able to dodge serious repercussions because, under the legal strategy employed by Mosby, the prosecution had to prove that the officers were aware of the harm they were causing.

“The officers were going about their business, treating the individuals they shuttle through the system with nor regard,” said Jaros, adding: “This is an indictment of the entire system.”

In contrast to police officers, Baltimore defense lawyers attest that ordinary people are systematically overcharged and thrown in jail and prison. As Daniel Denvir reports for Salon, the city’s bail system plays a large part in driving up these numbers by requiring cash payments—forcing many to languish behind bars awaiting trial. “If you’re poor, you sit in cages. If you have money, you get released,” Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe told Denvir. “That’s unfair.”

As if to underscore this disparity, Officers Garrett Miller, Edward Nero and William Porter and well as Sgt. Alicia White and Lt. Brian Rice say they are now planning to sue Mosby and Maj. Samuel Cogen for false arrest, defamation and false imprisonment.

Meanwhile, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is siding strongly with police, insisting to Fox News anchor Shepard Smith that “justice is a process and the process was fair.” Rawlings-Blake is now playing a prominent role at the Democratic National Convention as secretary of the Democratic National Committee

With the support of powerful figures like Rawlings-Blake, many are worried that officers will be emboldened to enact further violence in the future. The Baltimore police department has a troubling history of what are euphemistically referred to as “rough rides,” and the city has been forced to shell out millions for leaving at least two black men paralyzed as a result of injuries they sustained while being transported in a police van.

But witnesses also raise questions about the wounds that Gray sustained before he entered the van, when he was aggressively tossed to the ground and then hogtied. “Our ancestors were slaves, and the way Freddie gray was folded up, that was a slave catching position,” said Jones. “We need to have a real conversation about what happened to Freddie Gray before he entered the van.”

The charges have been dropped but Gray’s death still haunts the community, including his old neighborhood where a large mural of his face peers out from the wall of a row house near where he was arrested. Kevin Moore, who recorded cell phone footage of Gray's violent arrest, recently told the Guardian, “I hear it every night. Still. I hear the screams every night. ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I need help, I need medical attention.’ This is the shit that play in my mind over and over again.”

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Environment
Food
Media
World