DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Weeks after one Baltimore police officer was acquitted in the death of Freddie Gray, another is on trial today. Officer Caesar Goodson was the driver of the van where Gray, a young black man, apparently suffered a fatal neck and spine injury last year. The officer faces a second-degree murder charge. And NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports that many see his trial as make-or-break for prosecutors.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Officer Caesar Goodson has chosen to be tried by a judge instead of a jury. He'll face up to 30 years in prison if convicted of murder. He's also pleaded not guilty to manslaughter, assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment.
STEVEN LEVIN: I think Officer Goodson is the poster child for a prosecutor overcharging a defendant.
LUDDEN: Steven Levin is a criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor in Baltimore. He says Goodson is not charged for what he did, but what he did not do - failure to seatbelt Freddie Gray during his ride in a police van and failure to render medical aid.
LEVIN: We'll wait to see what, if anything, the prosecutors can convict on. But I think most people would be shocked if there's a murder conviction in this case.
LUDDEN: Goodson's defense got a boost this week when the judge blocked key evidence from a police investigator. She had testified that another officer told her Gray said he couldn't breathe while he was in the transport van. The officer denied that. The judge deemed it hearsay. Still, many also see Goodson's case as the best chance for any conviction in Gray's death. Peter Moskos is with John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
PETER MOSKOS: Yeah, at some level, you can't go into the police wagon alive and come out dead. In that sense, he's the most culpable.
LUDDEN: Gray actually died a week later. Witnesses in two previous trials testified that a van driver bears ultimate responsibility for a detainee. Prosecutors may also try to prove that Goodson gave Gray a rough ride, deliberately driving in a dangerous way, though it's not clear there's evidence of that.
MOSKOS: I don't know if he will get convicted. I don't know if he should get convicted. But if anybody's going to get convicted, it'll be him.
LUDDEN: If Goodson is not convicted, Moskos and others wonder if the state's attorney might drop charges against the other officers or if the city would again explode in violent protests, like those after Gray's death.
MUNIR BAHAR: This Freddie Gray trial, to the average Baltimorean, really does not mean a lot at all.
LUDDEN: A year ago, community activist Munir Bahar was on the streets, trying to calm the protests. Today, he's renovating rowhouses into a youth fitness center in this impoverished east Baltimore neighborhood.
BAHAR: The wood has to come out.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, sir.
BAHAR: Only brick.
LUDDEN: Of course the Freddie Gray trials are important, Bahar says, but more pressing for many is gun violence, which has grown steadily worse over the past year, and the daily struggle to survive, which has not grown easier.
BAHAR: Whichever way the trial goes does not affect somebody's ability to pay their bills and provide food for their children. It doesn't.
LUDDEN: Ironically, the one place Bahar does see changes for the better - Baltimore's police department.
T.J. SMITH: We have a few dozen officers on the streets now with body cameras.
LUDDEN: Police spokesman TJ Smith says, eventually, all 2,000 officers will have body cameras, a move aimed at improving community trust. There's also a new computer app to check that officers read updated regulations, like rules for seatbelting van passengers. And, Smith says, this month, the department's rolling out new and retrofitted transport vans.
SMITH: These vans have four cameras in them that record. And this is stored to the cloud.
LUDDEN: So the next time there's a question about what exactly happened in the back of a police wagon, at least there will be video. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.