One of six officers charged in connection with the arrest and subsequent death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore last April was acquitted Monday.
Officer Edward Nero, 30, faced one count of second-degree assault, two counts of misconduct in office and one count of reckless endangerment in the case. The assault charge would have carried up to 10 years in prison; the other charges carried five-year maximums.
Nero opted for a trial by judge rather than by jury. Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams announced his verdict shortly before 11 a.m. Monday. As Williams spoke, Nero appeared to wipe away a tear.
Williams found Nero not guilty of assault and misconduct because fellow Officer Garrett Miller testified he stopped and cuffed Gray, not Nero.
The judge found Nero not guilty of reckless endangerment and misconduct even though Nero failed to seat belt Freddie Gray in the police transport wagon, saying Nero lacked police seat belt training and it was reasonable for him to assume that a superior or the police wagon driver would handle seat belting.
The trial of driver Officer Caesar Goodson is scheduled to begin in a few weeks.
Nero's attorney said in a written statement Monday afternoon his client is "elated that this nightmare is finally over." Attorney Marc Zayon said Nero is appreciative of the reasoned judgment by Williams and hopes the state re-evaluates the charges against five other officers and dismisses them.
Nero will face an administrative review by the police department now that the criminal case is over, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement.
Protesters gathered at the courthouse in Baltimore early Monday morning, but moments after the verdict was read, the small crowds were quiet. Police have been stationed throughout the city at key locations.
"We once again ask the citizens to be patient and to allow the entire process to come to a conclusion," Rawlings-Blake said in the statement, in part. "In the case of any disturbance in the city, we are prepared to respond. We will protect our neighborhoods, our businesses and the people of our city."
Billy Murphy, the attorney for Gray's mother and stepfather, said he commended the judge for "not bending to the tremendous pressure in the black community to find these officers guilty."
"I don't believe Judge Williams can or should be criticized because he did an an amazing job not only of correctly applying the law and evidence but of explaining the details," Murphy said.
Murphy said guilt or innocence should be based solely on the evidence presented.
"You could not have asked for a better judge for this circumstance," Murphy said, citing Williams' history as a prosecutor in Baltimore City.
Murphy also asked the community to stay calm.
Gray's death April 19, 2015 set off more than a week of protests followed by looting, rioting and arson that prompted a citywide curfew.
Gray died a week after his neck was broken in the back of a police transport van while he was handcuffed and shackled, but left unrestrained by a seat belt.
Prosecutors argued Nero unlawfully arrested Gray without probable cause and was negligent when he didn't buckle the prisoner into a seat belt.
Nero's attorney argued his client didn't arrest Gray, and that the police van driver is responsible for buckling in detainees. The defense said the officers who responded that day acted responsibly and called witnesses to bolster their argument that any reasonable officer in Nero's position would have made the same decisions.
The defense also sought to convince the judge the department's order requiring that all inmates be strapped in is more suggestion than rule because officers are expected to act with discretion based on the circumstances of each situation.
Nero was the second officer to stand trial. Officer William Porter's manslaughter trial ended with a hung jury.
Last fall, Gray's family reached a tentative $6.4 million wrongful death settlement with the city of Baltimore.