Freddie Gray Verdict Clearly Correct; Will Save Lives
Mistake or Even Negligence Rarely a Crime; No Mens Rea
WASHINGTON, D.C. (May 23, 2016): Today’s verdict of not guilty on all charges in the trial of the Baltimore police officer implicated in the death of Freddie Gray was not only clearly legally correct, but will probably save many more lives than a guilty verdict, says a public interest law professor who has correctly predicted the outcome of many controversial and high profile homicide cases.
“It may be difficult for many outraged members of the community to understand, but there is a world of difference in law between making an honest and reasonable mistake, or even acting negligently or with gross negligence, and the kind of outrageous and clearly deplorable conduct required for a criminal conviction.”
“With few exceptions, a person must act with or exhibit what the law calls ‘mens rea’ – Latin for acting with a specific intent to commit a crime, a desire to act in a criminal as distinguished from a merely careless or even reckless manner – to be guilty of a crime, explains Professor John Banzhaf of the George Washington University Law School.
When police officers act improperly – whether or not harm or even death results – there are other ways to help right the wrong and see that some kind of justice is done, says Banzhaf.
These include departmental discipline (loss of salary, days off, demotion, or even dismissal from the force), civil liability (for negligence, gross negligence, or even recklessness, etc.) for the officer, or civil liability for the city or state which employed the officer.
This is especially true here where Officer Edward Nero’s actions, however wrongful they may have been, played at most only a small part in the various events which ultimately led to Gray’s death.
By the prosecutor’s theory of the case, every cop who makes an arrest which later proves to be unwarranted – even as a result of a minor technicality or small error of judgment – would be criminally liable, especially if a death occurs hours or even days later, and even if that result could not reasonably have been foreseen.
It Nero had been found guilty of even one of the criminal charges, it would almost certainly deter most reasonable police officers from making arrests in any situation but those so clearly required by the law that there could be no possible misunderstanding later on.
Freddie Gray – policing
This kind of passive barely policing – just the opposite of the type of active or aggressive policing which has proven to be so effective in deterring violent crime – would almost certainly lead to even more killings, especially killings of young African American men who are so often the innocent victims.
Because the prosecutors were not able to win a guilty verdict in either of the two Gray criminal cases which have already been tried, they may be reluctant to proceed with all of the charges which still remain against the various officers.
Today’s not-guilty verdict, delivered by a judge without a jury, may also encourage some of the remaining defendants to seek a bench trial before a judge, who may be more likely to correctly apply the law to the facts shown by the evidence, than a jury which may be inflamed by prejudice, a desire to hold someone liable because a death occurred, etc.
JOHN F. BANZHAF III, B.S.E.E., J.D., Sc.D.
Professor of Public Interest Law
George Washington University Law School,
FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,
Fellow, World Technology Network,
Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)
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