BALTIMORE – Attorneys for six Baltimore police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray are asking a judge to move their case out of Baltimore, arguing it will be impossible to select an impartial jury and receive a fair trial.
The officers face charges ranging from assault to second-degree "depraved-heart" murder.
Gray's death April 19 prompted a wave of protests that on two occasions gave way to violence. Shortly after charges were filed against the officers, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it would conduct an investigation of the city police department.
In a lengthy motion filed Wednesday, the defense attorneys argued that a citywide curfew during the unrest created "an insurmountable prejudice."
Democratic Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake imposed the curfew a day after the second outburst of violence. The officers' attorneys compared Baltimore under curfew to "Baghdad and Kabul in its appearance," and argued that because all city residents were "impacted by the events surrounding the arrest and death of Freddie Gray ... every potential juror would bring their passions and prejudices relating to the events with them to the courtroom."
The motion also argues that in the wake of Gray's death, the case became conflated with longstanding issues of mistrust toward and dysfunction within the police department.
A spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment.
Changes of venue are relatively rare, although they have been granted in cases that have garnered intense news media coverage or in which e local officials made statements that could influence potential jurors. For example, in the prosecution of Los Angeles police officers in the 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King, the trial was moved to a much-less racially diverse suburb. A jury acquitted the officers, triggering riots that left swaths of the city smoldering.
The Gray motion cites a case moved from Baltimore to Howard County involving the arrests of two African-American residents by officers, some of whom were black and some of whom were white. The population of Howard was 18 percent black, compared with 60 percent in Baltimore. A six-member jury that had one black member rejected a lawsuit against the officers.
Gray was black, as are three of the officers charged in the case.
In their arguments for a change of venue, the officers wrote that the riots, looting and arson were seen as "a symbolic extension" of protests prompted by the Gray case, and statements made by public officials regarding the department as a whole "blurred the line between the defendants and the police department ... so that the negative and hostile implications toward the department have become inseparably enmeshed with those against the defendants."
"The jurors watched on the news (or in person) their community burning, vehicles being smashed and set on fire, riots erupting around the city, businesses being vandalized and looted," the motion reads. "To have jurors — Baltimore city residents — have to make a decision in this case when they observe such a spectacle would be unfair and wholly improper in this case."
The motion also asserts that promises from Rawlings-Blake and State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby to obtain justice were prejudicial.
If a Baltimore Circuit Court judge grants the motion, the trial could be moved to another jurisdiction in Maryland. If the judge denies the motion, the officers can opt to proceed with a jury trial in the city or select a bench trial, in which the verdict is determined by a judge.