Goodson, who was driving the police van Gray was transported in last year, is charged with “depraved-heart murder” for allegedly driving the van in a way that he knew was likely to kill Gray, and doing it with malicious intent. If he is convicted, he will be the first of the six officers arrested for Gray’s death to face punishment: Officer William Porter’s trial ended with a hung jury (prosecutors intend to try him again), and Officer Edward Nero, who also opted for a bench trial, was acquitted.
Under the headline “Can Prosecutors Convict Anyone at All in the Death of Freddie Gray?”, the Atlantic’s David Graham interviews David Jaros, a University of Baltimore law professor, who has all sorts of illuminating information about and analysis of the case. For one, there’s his vivid explanation of what the ominous sounding charge of “depraved-heart murder” actually means:
Officer Goodson is charged with depraved-heart murder in a case that on its face seems more like negligence, whereas depraved-heart murder says that the individuals showed such wanton and reckless disregard for human life that it amounts to malice. That is a very different mens rea that the commonwealth says is akin to intentional murder. The example I use in class for depraved-heart murder is that the students stand on the roof of the law school and throw cinderblocks off the edge into a crowd below. Where they’re not aiming for anyone specifically, they don’t have the intent to kill, but they’re perfectly fine with the possibility that they might crush someone’s skull. That’s depraved-heart murder. It’s a pretty significant step from that to failing to buckle someone into a van.
The charge seems to depend on the assertion that Goodson intentionally gave Gray what is referred to as a “rough ride” on his way to the station house; that is, that he maneuvered the van in such a way that would injury his passenger intentionally. There’s plenty of evidence that the Baltimore Police Department has used rough rides as a way of punishing arrestees, and the city has paid out millions of dollars in lawsuits to people who were injured in police transport vans. But according to Jaros, it’s less clear that Gray’s death specifically was the result of a rough ride.
Jaros speaks forcefully about the need for police reform: As an example of systemic racism relating to the Gray case, he points to a Supreme Court decision that makes it legal for cops in high-crime areas to pursue and detain suspects who run away from them unprompted, but not in low-crime areas. In other words, if Gray lived in, say, Fell’s Point instead of Sandtown-Winchester, it would have been easier for prosecutors to prove that Officer Nero made an unlawful arrest when he chased Gray down.
But Jaros is skeptical in general that the criminal justice system itself is the best way to achieve these reforms, because it may put policy goals ahead of an individual’s rights as a defendant. “I, being a former public defender and not a great believer in the use of criminal law to shape people’s behavior, am not completely comfortable with the idea of using individuals to promote broad policy reform, and yet at the same time we are faced with egregious practices a powerful institution that has thus far resisted any other efforts to reform it,” he says. “We have to balance our concerns about individuals being used as a tool to reform...and the application of the criminal law to reform the police.”