As the highest-ranking officer involved in the arrest of a man whose broken neck in police custody sparked riots and upheaval in Baltimore, Lt. Brian Rice was well aware of his duties, prosecutors said Thursday.
"His conduct was a gross departure of what a reasonable officer would do," and constitutes criminal negligence, Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow said.
A defense lawyer countered that Rice acted as any reasonable officer would when he chose not to buckle a combative arrestee into a seat belt in the tight compartment of a police transport van.
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Proving negligence will be key to convicting Rice on charges of manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office in the death of Freddie Gray, who was chased down on Rice's orders.
Schatzow told Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams that Rice "wasn't an inexperienced officer" and was well aware of his duty to make sure he or other officers belted Gray in to ensure his safety.
"He ignored his duty and needlessly risked Mr. Gray's safety and life," Schatzow said. "He knew he was obligated to ensure the safety of Mr. Gray. He knew it, and he ignored it
But attorney Chaz Ball said Gray was kicking and screaming during and after his arrest, attracting a crowd and creating a dangerous environment for the officers involved.
Ball, who described Rice as an "18-year veteran, a husband, a father, (and) a Penn State grad," said his "nine-second decision" not to put Gray into a seat belt "wasn't criminal negligence — it was 100 percent reasonable."
Moments before these opening statements, prosecutors told the judge they won't pursue one of two misconduct charges Rice faces.
Rice still stands accused of misconduct in office for failing to buckle Gray in, but no longer faces a second misconduct count, relating to whether police had probable cause to arrest him.
Rice was one of six officers, three white and three black, charged in the Gray's death, which prompted protests and rioting and added fuel to the national Black Lives Matter movement.
The first prosecution witness Thursday was Dr. Carol Allan, an assistant medical examiner who autopsied Gray's body. She testified that she has always believed his death was a homicide, in part because he lacked the "extreme force" required to snap his own neck.
"If a seat belt had been used, then the type of injury Mr. Gray sustained would not have occurred," she testified.
Later, she clarified that her homicide determination "is a definition that has no standing, legally," and simply means "death at the hands of another."
Rice is the fourth officer to stand trial. Two others were acquitted of all charges, including the wagon driver, who faced second-degree murder. The first trial ended in a hung jury, so that officer has a September retrial.