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Jury Selection Begins For First Officer To Face Trial In Freddie Gray Case


In Baltimore, jury selection began today for the first police officer to face trial for the death of Freddie Gray. Gray was the unarmed black man who died after being arrested and transported in a police van last April. The officer, William Porter, has pleaded not guilty to manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment. Defense lawyers have repeatedly expressed doubt that enough unbiased jurors can be found for the case. NPR's Jennifer Ludden spent the day at the courthouse in Baltimore and joins us. Jennifer, how did the jury selection proceedings go today?

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Well, Robert, they started off with a large pool - 75 people. A slight majority of them appeared to be African-American, reflecting the city here. Judge Barry Williams asked who had not heard of this highly publicized case. Everyone had. He then asked a long list of questions, trying to suss out bias. The most interesting moment is when he asked where anyone or an immediate family member had either been a victim of a crime or been investigated, charged, or incarcerated. Robert, half of the jury pool stood up to say yes, really showing why this case is resonating here.

SIEGEL: Jennifer, talk about the concerns that the defense has expressed.

LUDDEN: Well, first of all, this city is majority African-American, like Freddie Gray. And the defense has pointed to a survey that finds widespread anti-police sentiment. I mean, you don't have to try hard to find people here who say they've had bad run-ins with police. Baltimore has paid millions in recent years to settle civil claims of police brutality. There's intense public pressure around the case. And when you just talk to people around town, many say, very openly, they really want to see these police officers convicted.

SIEGEL: Well, what would happen if they actually can't seat a jury?

LUDDEN: Well, the trial would likely be moved to another jurisdiction, which is something the defense has been asking for repeatedly. Now, recognizing the intense publicity around the case, though, Judge Barry Williams has granted jurors anonymity. In this case, that would be to avoid retaliation not from those who are on trial but from members of the public who might be upset at the outcome.

SIEGEL: And Jennifer, tell us about William Porter, the officer who was in court today, and the charges that he's facing.

LUDDEN: He was called in as a backup in this case. William Porter came in to check on Freddie Gray when he was in the police van. He is reported to have warned the driver of that van that Gray was in medical distress, and that statement is thought to be key here not just for Porter. Prosecutors say that William Porter is a material witness in two of their other cases against the driver of the police van who faces a murder charge and another sergeant who was also in the van. This is why Porter is up first, and his trial could have a big impact on how those of the other five police officers go.

SIEGEL: And the other five police officers would face separate individual trials, as far as it scheduled now.

LUDDEN: Separate consecutive trials, and they're scheduled all the way through March.

SIEGEL: There were protests anticipated today when this trial began. What happened?

LUDDEN: There were about a dozen or so protesters outside as the jury selection got underway. And you could hear them at certain points inside the courtroom. People have been following this case very closely and say they're going to keep that up.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Jennifer Ludden in Baltimore. Jennifer, thanks.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.