Nearly five years ago in Baltimore, the trials of the six police officers charged in the killing of Freddie Gray began in one of our courthouses.
For this public defender, working in the trenches of the criminal court system, their cases raised deep issues of inequity.
Justice for victims like Gray was long overdue. At the same time, many of us were appalled at the officially sanctioned hypocrisy unfolding before our eyes involving the accused officers.
Fast forward to today:
Derek Chauvin’s trial for the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis is eerily reminiscent of what took place in Baltimore – namely, police are afforded a distinctly different brand of justice than the average defendant.
Let’s start with the officers’ arrests.
In both Baltimore and Minneapolis, the officers knew what was coming. Prosecutors had announced the charges and the defendants made strategic arrangements with their lawyers to turn themselves in.
When charged with serious offenses, my clients – predominantly, poor Black men – are subjected to warrant raids at any time of day. The harsh treatment affects not just those being arrested, but the people who live with and near them.
At $250,000 to $350,000 each, the bails for the officers charged in the killing of Gray were shockingly low. Chauvin’s bail was set at $1 million, while his three co-defendants received $750,000 bonds.
While that may seem high, almost any defendant with homicide charges in Baltimore would be held without bail.
Sleeping in Their Own Beds
All of the cops charged in Baltimore and Minneapolis made bail and could attend trial after sleeping in their own beds at night. (Chauvin was allowed to live in Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas or Wisconsin while out on bond.)
Baltimore’s jails were under a court order to improve their squalid conditions even before the pandemic. No pre-trial prisoner has yet been vaccinated, and I’ve lost count of the number of my clients who have contracted Covid, though, fortunately, none has died.
Beyond the question of pretrial detention, the Baltimore officers and Chauvin got uncharacteristically fast trials. The first of the trials for the cops charged in Freddie Gray’s killing took place six months after the indictment.
Regular defendants rarely move through the system this swiftly.
Judges typically find “good cause” to postpone cases (often at the request of prosecutors), which gets them around Hicks.
Good cause has never been more relevant than right now, as Covid-related delays have completely shut down Maryland’s jury trials since Thanksgiving.
Juries won’t resume until April 26, and even then, it will be at a snail’s pace. Over the last year, little has been done to resolve criminal cases beyond petty misdemeanor matters.
By the time the courts reach their trial dates this summer, some defendants will be going on two years of pretrial incarceration.
Watching the Chauvin case proceed in a specially outfitted courtroom really stings, as my colleagues and I contrast its ease and efficiency with our attempts to virtually communicate with clients desperately wanting to know when they may someday appear in court.
And let’s be honest about the charges. If any of my clients was caught on surveillance footage kneeling on a man’s neck minutes before their death, the state would levy a first-degree murder charge carrying a life sentence.
No one would question premeditation. And forget the possibility of a compromise verdict of manslaughter from a jury. We’d be lucky to get a second-degree result for the common folk because of the state’s tactic of overcharging.
The Fairness Standard
Perhaps worse than the lighter charges and lenient sentences in play for police defendants is another unspoken truth:
Prosecutors in high profile cop trials will empathize with the actions of victims like Gray and Floyd, who flee from police and pass fake currency, respectively, only to turn around and chastise the same conduct in cases against regular people.
During the Baltimore cops’ trials, all you had to do was go to a different courtroom to see the shift in position by the state. Sometimes, the dynamics were race-based; other times, they were just an outgrowth of the socio-economic status of the defendant.
Consistency is what is needed. We need fairness to be extended to “regular” criminal cases, after the camped-out media departs and the limelight fades.
The social justice movement that arose from Floyd’s killing is firmly rooted in awareness of the long history of unfairness in the criminal justice system. That’s what Baltimore’s unrest in 2015 was about, too.
The solution isn’t to treat the officers as unjustly as everyone else. Instead, we should aspire to treat everyone charged with a crime fairly and equally. And that’s going to take some soul searching.
• Todd Oppenheim is a supervising attorney in the Baltimore City Public Defender’s Office. The opinions expressed in this article are his own. Tweet him at @Opp4Justice.