William Porter is one of six officers charged in the death of Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of a severe spinal injury he suffered while in police custody.
Baltimore circuit court judge Barry Williams conducted initial questioning in a courtroom but planned to interview 66 prospective jurors in a private conference room – an indication of how difficult the selection process could be in the high-profile trial.
Porter, who is also black, is accused of failing to get medical help for Gray during several stops made by the police van that carried Gray on a 45-minute trip. At the end, officers found Gray unresponsive. He was taken to a hospital and died a week later, on 19 April.
The officer is being tried first in part because prosecutors want to use him as a witness in the trials of several other officers. He is charged with manslaughter, assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment.
The judge asked 75 potential jurors on Monday whether anyone had not heard about the case, the citywide curfew imposed after Gray’s death or the settlement paid to his family. No one responded.
A small group of protesters gathered outside the courtroom. Their chants of “All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray”, could be heard throughout the proceedings.
A verdict is likely to set the tone for the city. If Porter is acquitted, there could be protests and possibly more unrest. A conviction could send shockwaves through the city’s troubled police department.
“Everything is at stake. The future of the city is at stake,” Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has said.
Democratic presidential contender Martin O’Malley, who served two terms as governor of Maryland, and previously as the mayor of Baltimore, expressed hope that the upcoming trials would help the city heal, calling Gray’s death and the unrest that followed a “big setback” for the city.
“The prosecutors made a determination in these cases so justice will be done,” O’Malley told the Guardian during a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire on Monday.
The judge said he expects the trial to wrap up by 17 December.
Two other officers are black and the three additional officers are white. They will be tried separately beginning in January.
For several days after Gray died, the demonstrations were mostly peaceful. But on the day he was buried, looting and rioting started, and businesses were burned down. The unrest resulted in millions of dollars in property damage.
The turmoil forced an incumbent mayor to drop out of a re-election campaign and toppled the career of a reform-minded police chief who was unceremoniously fired. Davis stepped in as police chief in July, after a crime spike that saw 45 homicides in a single month.
When Gray was arrested, he was initially handcuffed. Later during his van ride, his legs were shackled and he was placed back in the van without a seatbelt, a violation of department policy, prosecutors have said.
Part of O’Malley’s pitch to voters is that he was instrumental in cleaning up the streets of Baltimore during his tenure as mayor, dramatically reducing crime rates. But the turmoil in Baltimore this summer placed O’Malley’s leadership under scrutiny, with some arguing that the protests and riots are the consequences of his aggressive “zero-tolerance” law enforcement strategy.
“There is no way for any mayor or any governor to make a city immune to setbacks,” O’Malley said on Monday. “The key is to pick yourself up off the mat and find a way to bring people together to move forward again.”
O’Malley pointed to his criminal justice agenda, which calls for widespread policing reforms, including increased training and improved policies for handling misconduct.
An independent review of the police response revealed “major shortcomings”, and painted a portrait of an overwhelmed and under-prepared department that made tactical errors and endangered officers.
The Justice Department is conducting a probe into the department stemming from allegations that officers hassled people and used excessive force.