By Donna Owens
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Baltimore police officer Caesar Goodson Jr. on Thursday became the second officer cleared of criminal wrongdoing in the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died of injuries sustained while in police custody.
Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams found Goodson, who is also black, not guilty of all criminal counts including second-degree "depraved heart" murder, the most serious accusation against any of the six officers charged in connection with Gray's death. The incident sparked a day of rioting and arson last year.
The second verdict of not guilty makes it less likely prosecutors will succeed in convincing a judge or jury to convict the other officers, said Tim Maloney, a civil rights attorney with Joseph Greenwald & Laake.
"This is what happens when you make charging decisions in the heat of a riot instead of reviewing evidence in the cool light of day," Maloney said.
Gene Ryan, the head of Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police, praised the judge's decision and called on the State's Attorney for Baltimore, Marilyn Mosby, to drop the cases against the other officers.
Tessa Hill Aston, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP civil rights group, was disappointed by the decision. "There has been no justice for Freddie Gray," she said.
Mosby announced plans to charge the officers just four days after the rioting that followed Gray's death. Three officers are still awaiting trials, while a fourth, William Porter, saw his trial end with a hung jury in December. He is awaiting retrial.
Goodson, 46, was the driver of a police transport van in which Gray broke his neck in April 2015. He had also faced three counts of manslaughter, and single counts of reckless endangerment, second-degree assault and misconduct in office.
Attorneys for each side declined to comment following the ruling, citing a court gag order.
'COURT IS SATISFIED'
Goodson, a soft-spoken man who was visibly nervous during the proceedings, smiled upon hearing the verdict.
"This court is satisfied the state has failed to show" evidence of the crimes, Williams said. Goodson, a 16-year veteran of the force, had waived his right to a jury trial, choosing to have the judge determine his fate.
Gray's death came at a time of fierce national debate over the use of lethal force by police - especially against unarmed black men amid questionable deaths in New York, Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri.
The deaths and ensuing protests gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Prosecutors contended Goodson gave Gray a "rough ride," failed to ensure his safety and should have called a medic.
"That is an inflammatory term ... that when uttered is not to be taken lightly," said Williams.
Goodson's defense team argued that Gray caused his own injuries by falling inside the transport van. Goodson also lacked the training to recognize that Gray was hurt, they said.
Gray, 25, was arrested after fleeing police officers in a high-crime area. He was shackled and then bundled into Goodson's van and not secured with a seat belt inside the vehicle.
The Gray family's lawyer, Billy Murphy, told a news conference: "This family is enormously frustrated, not just for themselves, but for the community."
Gray's mother, Gloria Darden, looked stricken and dabbed her eyes, but did not speak. Baltimore agreed last year to pay the family $6.4 million in a settlement.
Several dozen protesters were gathered outside the courthouse, chanting "Justice for Freddie Gray."
(Writing by Ian Simpson and Scott Malone; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, G Crosse)