A police officer went on trial Monday in the case of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man whose death from injuries in a police van ignited riots in Baltimore earlier this year.
William Porter, the defendant, is one of six Baltimore police officers implicated in the death, one of a rash of incidents that has cast a national spotlight on police brutality.
The trial began with the selection of jurors who must decide for themselves what happened to Gray to cause his spine to snap as he was being transported in a police van on April 12.
Porter, who is black, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and assault on Gray, who had been picked up after fleeing at the sight of police.
Arrested and charged with possession of a knife, Gray was loaded onto the police van with his hands and feet shackled. When police later checked on their prisoner, he was in a coma with a severed spine, investigators found.
Gray died of his injuries April 19, sparking protests that turned violent on April 25 in a night of looting and arson.
President Barack Obama denounced the violence, while acknowledging that the case left troubling unanswered questions.The case is so sensitive that defense lawyers have petitioned to have it moved out of Baltimore on grounds their clients would not get a fair trial there.
But Judge Barry Williams has refused, despite the likelihood of protests around the Baltimore courthouse where the trial is being held.
"The level of publicity, media coverage, and lived-experience in the city after Freddie Gray`s death will all work together to make jury selection a long and in-depth process," said Amy Dillard, a law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
"The goal is to find jurors who have not been influenced by media coverage, who have not pre-formed an opinion about guilt, and who can be open-minded and listen to the evidence and the instructions when considering guilt," she told AFP.After the medical examiner declared Gray`s death a homicide, the Baltimore city prosecutor filed charges against six officers -- three white and three black. All six have entered not guilty pleas.
Judge Williams has barred the defense and prosecutors from publicly discussing their strategies, but lawyers for the accused were expected to insist that Gray`s death was accidental, possibly caused when the police van suddenly braked.
Debate over the case has simmered over the past several months, as the accused police officers have made their separate appearances in court, and tension is expected to run high when the first verdict is announced.
City officials, meanwhile, have paid Gray`s family $6.4 million, a settlement negotiated independently of the court proceedings.
The case, meanwhile, has become emblematic of the deep divide between police accustomed to using repressive tactics to keep order and the city`s poor black communities.
One of the most violent cities in the United States in the early 1990s, crime rates in Baltimore had fallen except in certain very poor neighborhoods.
The murder rate has once again begun to rise, however, with homicides surpassing 300 so far this year.
The trial comes less than a week after authorities in Chicago released a graphic video showing a white police officer firing 16 shots into a black teenager. The officer has been charged with premeditated murder.