Van driver in Freddie Gray case found not guilty

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BALTIMORE, Md. (WUSA9) --  Baltimore judge found a city police officer not guilty of all charges Thursday in the death of Freddie Gray, a verdict that dealt a severe blow to prosecution efforts to hold police accountable for the young black man's death while in custody last year.

RELATED: Closing arguments set for Baltimore police officer's trial

Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. had faced the most serious count, second-degree depraved-heart murder, leveled against any of the six officers charged in the controversial case. Goodson, 46, was also acquitted of manslaughter, two counts of vehicular manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment and official misconduct.

Gray, 25, was arrested by bicycle officers on April 12, 2015, after he caught their eye and ran. He was shackled and loaded into a van driven by Goodson but was not secured in a seat belt. Gray suffered a severe spinal injury en route to the police station and died a week later.

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Gray's death set off a series of Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the nation and sometimes violent protests in the majority-black city of more than 600,000 people. Stores were burned and looted, and clashes with police left dozens injured.

Goodson, who is black, had waived his right to a jury, instead casting his lot with Judge Barry Williams in a bench trial. He is the second officer to be acquitted of all charges by Williams.

The local Fraternal Order of Police issued a statement calling on State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby to drop her "malicious prosecution" of the officers. Some experts expect Mosby to continue pursuing convictions.

"I think Marilyn Mosby is very concerned, as she should be, about her political career," Wayne Cohen, a Maryland defense lawyer and law professor at George Washington University, told USA TODAY. "She has to make some decisions on whether to fish or cut bait on this. I thing she will continue to fish."

Legal expert and longtime defense lawyer Barry Slotnick agreed.

"Community pressure is not something that should cause a (criminal) case to be brought," Slotnick told USA TODAY. "But I think they are stuck with going forward. And I don’t think anybody is going to be convicted."

Prosecutors claimed Goodson, 46, intentionally gave Gray a rough ride. They said Goodson also was responsible for buckling Gray's seat belt and failed to get Gray medical attention despite his repeated requests. Goodson did not testify, but his lawyers said Gray was kicking and too volatile to buckle in — and that there was no evidence of a rough ride.

Goodson is the third officer to stand trial in the case. The trial of Officer William Porter, who also is black, ended with a hung jury and will be retried. Officer Edward Nero, who is white, was acquitted of all charges by Williams, who is black, in a bench trial last month. The other three officers, one black and two white, are scheduled to face trials later this year.

Since the days following Gray's funeral, protests in the city have been mostly calm. Protesters gathered outside the courthouse Thursday when the verdict was announced, chanting "Justice for Freddie Gray."

The activist group Color of Change said the verdict "sends a clear message to black communities that the police and larger justice system are not designed to protect us." The NAACP tweeted: "Gray's death is a tragedy not found to be a crime in court, but a wake-up call for Baltimore. Not a day of rejoice for anybody."

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issued a statement asking the community for calm and patience.

"Now that the criminal case has come to an end, Officer Goodson will face an administrative review by the Police Department," she said. "We once again ask the citizens to be patient and to allow the entire process to come to a conclusion... I know that the citizens of Baltimore will continue to respect the judicial process and the ruling of the court."

In September, the city announced a $6.4 million settlement with Gray's family. Cohen said good can still come from the young man's death as the community changes focus from criminal trials to making the system better.

Cohen called Williams a "balanced, thoughtful" judge who clearly was frustrated by the prosecution's lack of evidence.

"What happened to Freddie Gray was a terrible tragedy," Cohen said. "But did it rise to the level of a criminal conviction? Clearly not. The evidence was not there. Not even close."