Freddie Gray settlement hurts the prosecution

Updated 4:00 PM EDT, Wed September 9, 2015

Story highlights

Baltimore officials approved a $6.4 million settlement with the family of Freddie Gray

Laura Coates: While deal is justified, timing is bad; could disrupt plans for trial of 6 officers in Gray's death

Editor’s Note: Laura Coates is a former Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia and trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. She is a legal commentator and Lecturer of Law at the George Washington University School of Law. Follow her on Twitter: @thelauracoates The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

As a former prosecutor, I am frustrated by the city of Baltimore’s decision to settle a lawsuit brought by Freddie Gray’s family before the criminal trials take place.

It is a prime example of the right hand appearing as if it doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. The settlement taints the jury pool and increases the likelihood that the trial will not stay in Baltimore, or alternatively, that any conviction will be reversed on appeal on that basis.

Laura Coates
PHOTO: Tim Coburn
Laura Coates

If people really want justice for Freddie Gray and his family, they should not encourage the mayor to do things that undermine the ability of the prosecutor to fairly try the defendants in Baltimore.

It’s not a matter of whether Freddie Gray’s family should receive a settlement. They should. When a 25-year-old man allegedly suffers a spinal injury while in police custody, civil liability is inevitable. It’s a matter of when it should have happened. As Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake conceded, it is highly unusual for a settlement like this to predate the criminal trials.

The untimely decision by the Baltimore City of Board of Estimates, which includes Mayor Rawlings-Blake, gives unnecessary ammunition to the defense’s argument that the six officers charged cannot possibly get a fair trial in Baltimore.

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Before the settlement, the defense’s main contention was that Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s acknowledgement in her initial press conference of a slogan used by demonstrators – “No justice, no peace” – was wholly inflammatory and poisoned the well, and that the extensive rioting left no potential juror unaffected. The judge dispensed with the first argument when he denied any request for Mosby to recuse herself.

Now, the defense can claim that the jury pool is completely tainted because the city has acknowledged a civil liability. What’s more, the jury pool is now comprised of the very taxpayers paying for that liability.

While the city argues the settlement has no bearing on the criminal case, nothing could be further from the truth. The settlement gravely impacts the ability to secure an impartial jury. While it is indeed the mayor’s responsibility to make fiscally sound decisions and avoid protracted litigation and potentially exorbitant damages, her fiscal endeavor undermined the prosecution’s ability to try this case.

The timing is all the more irritating to the prosecution given how critical the motion to change venue is to securing a favorable verdict. Plainly, Baltimore is one of the few counties within Maryland with a high enough African-American population to increase the likelihood of a racially diverse jury.