BALTIMORE IS BURNING

I’ve been watching the events in Baltimore over the past two weeks with fascination. And Horror. It’s like watching a Shakespearean drama unfold, only it’s real.

When I first heard the news about Freddie Gray dying in police custody I groaned out loud for several reasons, one of which was my totally selfish desire to be able to go one week without another death at the hands of the police forcing me to blog about it. So, I resisted. But I also hesitated because the facts were so bizarre. I listened to the usual suspects all over the airwaves, opining away, when it was obvious that it was going to take some very thorough investigation and analysis to get to the bottom of what occurred during Mr. Gray’s arrest and transport.

But as it began to unfold, I began to see that something was rotten in the City of Baltimore. The Passion Play that began to roll out was worthy of Hamlet. The ghost of Freddie Gray hovers above the action, trying to tell us about the foul way he passed to the other side. Not to be too poetic, given the tragic circumstances, but the way the initial investigation was handled reeks of foul play.

There are so many different elements it is hard to know where to begin: cops covering up possible misconduct, crowds running amok, Big Media being a big part of the problem, a Major League Baseball Game in a deserted stadium, politicians rallying around as very positive role models, for a change, and a bright young daughter of (count ‘em) two police officers put in charge of the prosecution of six cops. Good grief. As so often happens in my profession, you just can’t make this stuff up.

Let’s begin, unfortunately, where we must: Police Misconduct and Death.

In the last blog I talked about how even innocent people can do stupid stuff like hiding evidence in the heat of the moment. But here we had six police officers, driving all over town for almost half an hour, making multiple stops to supposedly “adjust Mr. Gray’s restraints” while getting zero medical attention for him and then denying that one of the stops was ever made for an entire week. Until it was discovered on a private surveillance camera. That is no heat of the moment mistake — that looks like a cover up to me, complete with collusion between the six of them. So, there were bad facts from the outset.

Not to mention a clearly injured Mr. Gray being dragged into the back of the transport van, screaming in pain. Something is wrong with this picture. It’s not brain surgery people.

Then we had the riots. I agree with Obama. These kids are not protestors, they are thieves, burglars, vandals and arsonists. Little criminals. Period. There is no excuse. But there may be a reason that they are so outraged besides just wanting to commit crimes for the sake of it; something is bothering them that goes way beyond the death of Freddie Gray.

The role of the Media in all of this is pretty disturbing also. I listened in disbelief as Chris Cuomo lectured into the camera about how the protestors telling them to leave just “didn’t get it”, how the media was not the problem. Au contraire Mr. Cuomo. The media WAS the problem. It’s called the Heisenberg Principle (actually the “observer effect” but that’s being too academic, esp for Breaking Bad fans).

This stands for the notion that simply by being there observing something you are changing the situation; in other words, turn on the camera and they will riot.

It’s like felonious performance art. Without an audience most of these “little criminals” would be acting out much less, if at all. It reminds me of the TV News people in Seattle out on the streets predicting a blizzard that never materializes, desperately seeking close ups of snowflakes to broadcast.

Last night we walked through downtown Seattle on our way to a friend’s house for dinner. We took the bus because we wanted to avoid having our car torched by the predicted May Day rioters. The riots had not happened as predicted (although later on some things did occur, mostly white kids looking for action). As we passed the Federal Courthouse it was surrounded. Not by protestors, but by upset TV crews, smoking away, obviously unhappy that the predicted May Day riots had not materialized yet. I mean, they may have to go out and find some actual news to report on. Not so in Baltimore. They couldn’t get enough of the stuff. And in so doing, they became part of the problem — a big part if you ask me.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the First Amendment. Passionately. But that does not mean you hand someone a motive to misbehave just so you can tape it and sell ads to people who tune in to see your work. There is something sick and immoral about the media feeding frenzy that goes on at these things. It’s pathetic if you ask me. A bunch of grown gawkers salivating over destruction and violence just because they know it is a short cut to fame. And profits. Not right.

The Shakespearean hero coming to the rescue here appears to be Marilyn Mosby, the youngest major city prosecutor in the country, an African American woman whose mom and dad were both cops, not to mention half of the rest of her family. Good grief. Again, you just can’t make this stuff up. This does not mean I agree with her charging decision. Or disagree. I have not read the files so how could I possibly know? But I do agree that, having made the decision, with a minimum of dithering, she managed to change the situation for the better in sharp contrast to the news crews out there clamoring for more violence and destruction.

And, I have to admit, that a manslaughter charge does not seem inherently out of line here. I mean, the idea that Freddie Gray broke his own back is a bit hard to swallow.

It could have happened. If he fell and hit his head just right, according to one of the experts, it could have been like a person falling in the bathroom and landing their chin on the side of the bathtub, thus hyperextending the spine and causing this type of injury. I have seen that in murder cases I have handled myself. So it is possible. I predict the defense will rely heavily on medical heavy hitters to convey this to the jury, but who knows what the defense might be? I don’t.

I do know that the constant leaks and speculation about what did or did not occur became a huge part of the problem, and again, it just smells bad. For example, the witness, Donta Allen who supposedly said that Mr. Gray was trying to hurt himself. I heard his interview and he said no such thing. Instead he said that all he could hear was bumping noises. The fact that the cops drove on, in their bizarre circular route, stopping only to tighten restraints, not seeking medical attention and not securing Mr. Gray with a seat belt as he bounced around back there like a balling ball is at least troublesome. In fact, it is completely irresponsible in my opinion. It will be for a jury to decide whether the facts warrant a finding of manslaughter for the driver, who was, after all, literally in the driver’s seat for all of this.

There are so many more aspects of this that merit comment. Representative Elijah Cummings was one of the few bright lights. I don’t believe he made it to Nerd Prom. He was too busy doing his job. Out on the streets, trying to calm the crowds, leading by example, being involved. Not focused on which poor woman was stuck being Wolf Blitzer’s prom date. Trying to do something good and productive.

And perhaps that is the most important lesson in all of this: it is time for a change.

Not time for a political slogan about change, but real change. We need to examine the death of many of our formerly great cities, ravaged by crime and poverty and try to figure out what has gone so very wrong. Just look at my beloved former home, Chicago, now commonly called Chiraq because of the death and destruction on its streets.

I don’t have the answers. I’m just a lawyer. But collectively we all do. It is time to put down the stupid political infighting and come together to do some good for a change, to offer inner city youth a future besides either selling crack of making it big in the NBA. I’ve been working closely with the fallout of this problem for decades now, and I am sick of it. I would much rather see young people with a future worth saving, not just helping them avoid prison, but seeing them succeed. If you want to know who out there can help make this happen I have an idea. Look in the mirror.


Originally published at www.seattlecriminallawyerblog.com on May 4, 2015.