Judge Barry Williams is overseeing the trials in the Freddie Gray case
Williams prosecuted cases of police misconduct for the U.S. Justice Department
Days before taking 20 minutes to read his not-guilty verdict Monday, Williams aggressively challenged prosecutors’ claim that the takedown and subsequent arrest of Freddie Gray without probable cause amounted to a criminal assault. He questioned the state’s assertion that Nero and other officers assaulted Gray by touching him without reasonable suspicion or probable cause.
“You are saying an arrest without probable cause is a misconduct-in-office charge – is a crime?” the judge asked. “So you say if you arrest someone without probable cause, it’s a crime?”
To those who know Williams, his fairness and broad range of experience – from years prosecuting cases in the same courthouse where he now presides, to his investigation and prosecution of police misconduct cases for the U.S. Justice Department – uniquely prepared him to deliver the first verdict in the closely-watched Freddie Gray case.
“At this critical time and for good and sound and decent reasons, we have to respect Judge Williams’ opinion, because it was the result of an obviously fair process,” Gray family attorney Billy Murphy told CNN on Tuesday.
Murphy said Williams’ “excellent reputation both for probity and for being an aggressive prosecutor for many years … of police misconduct cases” helped relieve concerns many had about the legal process.
“That gives us confidence that our designated representative of the community, Judge Barry Williams, did a credible job,” he said. “That’s all we wanted out of the process.”
Williams ruled there was no evidence to support charges of second-degree intentional assault, two counts of misconduct in office and reckless endangerment against Nero – one of six officers charged and the second to be tried in the Gray case.
Williams is overseeing the cases of four officers awaiting trial: Officer Garrett Miller, Lt. Brian Rice, Sgt. Alicia White and Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. The trial for Goodson, the van driver, will start June 6. Rice’s will start July 5, Miller’s July 27 and White’s on October 13.
Officer William Porter will likely face a retrial on June 13.
Nero was one of three bicycle officers involved in the initial police encounter with Gray that day in April 2015. Baltimore seethed with days of unrest over the death of the 25-year-old prisoner.
Prosecutors have said that Gray complained of having trouble breathing and asked for medical help as he was driven in a police van. When he arrived at a police substation, he was unconscious. A week later, Gray died at a hospital from a spinal injury.
Considered fair, but blunt
On Monday, the families of Nero and the young black man the officer was accused of assaulting lauded Williams.
Murphy applauded Williams, saying that, as an African-American judge, “he did not bend to that pressure” from the black community, many of whom wanted to see Nero convicted as an emotional response to Gray’s death. The family might not be pleased with the verdict, he said, but they respect the rule of law.
In September 2015, Baltimore approved a $6.4 million settlement of all civil claims tied to the death of Freddie Gray. The settlement did not “represent any judgment” on the guilt or innocence of the six police officers charged in the case, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said.
Andrew Alperstein, a defense attorney and CNN legal contributor, said of Williams, “He’s very smart. He’s very in control. He doesn’t tolerate any shenanigans, whether it be lawyers or the collateral interests – the protesters… He’s very well respected by everybody – the state, the defense. He brings no agenda to it.”
Williams, 54, was born in Neptune, New Jersey.
He studied at the University of Virginia and obtained his law degree at the University of Maryland.
Williams has a reputation as fair but blunt, sometimes aggressively questioning attorneys in his courtroom.
“You couldn’t ask for a more fair-minded judge than Barry Williams,” Murphy said after the Nero verdict.
Local defense attorney Doug Colbert echoed that sentiment when speaking with CNN affiliate WBAL.
“I think at the end of the day, no matter what side of the coin you are on, with Judge Barry Williams presiding over this case, you are going to understand and realize that everyone received a fair trial,” he said.
Williams has served on the bench since 2005 and was named as the head of the Baltimore City Circuit Court’s criminal division in 2011. He was special litigation counsel in the Justice Department’s civil rights division from 2002 to 2005 and an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore from 1989 to 1997.
’Very balanced approach’
During the Freddie Gray case, Williams allowed the officers to be tried separately, and issued a gag order in October barring prosecutors and defense attorneys from discussing the case outside their legal teams. He denied a request by the defense to move the trials out of Baltimore.
He declared a hung jury in the trial of the first officer in the case, William Porter. He also denied a request from prosecutors to compel Porter to testify against the other officers on trial, but that ruling was overturned by the Maryland Court of Appeals, according to WBAL.
And he found Edward Nero not guilty in a bench trial.
“He brings a very balanced approach,” Alperstein said. “He’s well respected in the community. I haven’t heard any community concerns about he’s not a fair and impartial judge.”
Days before Williams’ verdict, Rep. Elijah Cummings, who represents Baltimore in Congress, appealed for calm from the community.
“I have known Judge Williams for at least 20 years,” Cummings said. “He has earned a reputation as a very fair and a very tough-minded judge and he runs a very strict court. And that’s the kind of judge you want in a case like this.”