“I need help. I need help.”
Those were the first words Freddie Gray said to William Porter, according to the officer’s videotaped statement to internal police investigators.
Porter had just opened the door of a Baltimore police van transporting Gray after his April 12 arrest. Along the way, Gray, shackled but not wearing a seat belt, suffered a broken neck. He died of his injuries a week later.
The death of Gray, 25, made him a symbol of the black community’s distrust of police and set off one of the worst urban riots in 50 years.
Porter is one of six officers charged in Gray’s death and the first to stand trial. Like Gray, he is black. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.
Prosecutors played the tape of Porter’s interview in court Friday over objections by his defense attorneys. It marked the first time his version of events surrounding Gray’s arrest has been heard in a public setting.
Prosecutors allege that Gray didn’t get the help he sought. An autopsy showed his spinal column was “functionally” severed. The cause of his death was a neck injury, and the manner of his death was homicide, a medical examiner testified Friday.
Porter, who was 26 and had about two years on the job, had opened the van door after responding to a call to check on Gray. The officer described what followed in a videotaped statement to Baltimore Police Department internal investigators nine days later.
Porter was present for five of the six stops the van made after Gray was taken into custody, according to prosecutors. At first, he was handling crowd control. By the fourth stop – at Druid Hill Avenue and Dolphin Street – Officer Caesar Goodson, the van’s driver, asked for an officer to check on Gray.
When Porter opened the van, Gray said, “Help,” according to Porter’s April 17 police interview. The video then shows him giving slightly different versions of what happened next.
At first, Porter said, he asked Gray, “What’s your deal?” and Gray responded, “I need help, I need help.” Porter said he helped Gray onto a bench inside the van and asked if he needed a medic, to which Gray replied, “Yes.”
Later, Porter was asked again about what took place. This time, Porter said he asked Gray, “What’s up?” and that Gray said nothing, then, “Help me up.” Porter asked, “You need a medic or something, a hospital or something?” And Gray said “Yes.”
Prosecutors allege Porter did not promptly summon medical assistance for Gray, nor did he buckle him into a seat belt, as was department policy.
Porter said he had no expectation that medics would arrive on the street to tend to Gray: “The medics rarely respond when people are in the wagon.”
He also said, “There didn’t appear to be any… circumstance to get a medic at that time.”
In addition, Porter said, Gray didn’t offer a specific medical complaint.
“I asked him multiple times, ‘Why do you need a medic? What is wrong with you?’ And he kept saying ‘I need a medic.’”
Gray was known to fake injuries, Porter added.
“He played the ‘I need a medic’ game.”
He said that Gray tried to kick out the window of a patrol car from inside a few weeks earlier. “It was always a big scene when you tried to arrest Freddie Gray.”
According to testimony, Porter did tell a supervisor Gray needed a medic at the van’s fifth stop. At the sixth and final stop, the police station, a medic was called within seconds of Porter seeing that Gray was unconscious, not breathing and his heart had stopped.
“I opened the door myself,” Porter said. Another officer said, “Oh s***, we need to call for a medic.” Porter continued, “I pick him up and he looks unconscious, so I call a medic.”
Porter’s alleged failure to act sooner lies at the heart of the charges against him. And what happens in Porter’s trial could have an impact on the other cases to follow. Van driver Goodson’s trial comes next; it is set to begin on January 6.
Porter acknowledged on the tape that Gray seemed lethargic in the van. He said he assumed Gray was experiencing an “adrenalin dump.” He was “tired,” Porter said he concluded, because he “kicked the wagon so much.” The van ride lasted 45 minutes.
Prosecutors say Gray suffered the type of injury a person might receive after diving into the shallow end of a swimming pool.
Exactly how and when Gray was injured remains unclear, but prosecutors allege Porter and the other officers are responsible for his death. They have portrayed Porter as an uncaring cop who shirked his official duty.
But in cross-examination, his defense sought to show that Porter might have been the one officer on the scene who did care.
The defense asserts Porter was a young cop trying to learn the job under difficult circumstances on the street and facing cumbersome bureaucracy back at the city’s Western Division station.
The defense team acknowledges that Porter was trained at the police academy to secure detainees with seat belts. But nobody ever did, they said, and he forgot about his training after two years on the streets.
The defense also acknowledged that the department had issued a new policy requiring that all arrestees wear seat belts when being transported. But defense attorney Gary Proctor told jurors in his opening statement that Porter hadn’t read it.
According to testimony, the memo and an 80-page attachment dated April 3 was emailed to Porter on April 9 – three days before Gray’s arrest. It was one of 41 emails Porter received that day, according to testimony.
Family members of both Porter and Gray were in court on Friday.
Gray’s family, including his mother, Gloria Darden, watched some of the proceedings – including testimony about his autopsy – on a large closed-circuit television monitor in an overflow courtroom. They were spared from seeing any graphic images.
Scans and a photo of Gray’s spinal column were shown as Dr. Carol Allan, an assistant Maryland state medical examiner, testified as an expert witness. A break was clearly visible.
Such an injury, she said, would disable the diaphragm, hindering Gray’s ability to breathe by about 80%. At first, Gray was able to breathe and talk, but eventually the muscles that helped him breathe tired. When that happens, she added, a person suffocates.
About a quarter of the people who receive such an injury deteriorate on the way to the hospital, Allan said. Keeping the neck stable is essential to keeping victims from becoming worse.
On Thursday, Darden broke into loud sobs after watching cell phone recordings of her son screaming and being dragged to the van. That day, jurors also examined the van – out of sight of the media and the public. The trial resumes Monday at 9 a.m. ET.
CNN’s Aaron Cooper, Jean Caesarez and Carolyn Sung contributed to this report.