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Van Driver In Freddie Gray Case Chooses Bench Trial

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- In just two days, the trial of the next officer charged in connection with the arrest and death of Freddie Gray will begin. Officer Caesar Goodson's decision to choose a trial by judge instead of by jury has proven to be a successful strategy for other officers around the country facing criminal charges.

Goodson was driving the police wagon when Gray suffered a nearly-severed spinal cord. He is the only officer facing a murder charge in the Freddie Gray case.

WJZ Investigator Mike Hellgren explains why Goodson is not alone in making a bold move for a bench trial.

Especially in emotionally-charged cases, officers around the country are opting to forgo a jury. And in several high-profile cases, it's been a blueprint for acquittal.

Like Officer Edward Nero before him, Officer Caesar Goodson has said "no" to a jury.

Some courtroom observers laud the move as smart in a case where emotions are running high, while some activists call it disappointing to take the verdict out of the hands of the community.

It is a strategy that has worked for officers nationwide.

"A jury's emotional view of a case that involves a police officer may be different as a result of cases across the country," said Adam Ruther, Rosenberg Martin Greenberg.

Just last year, former Cleveland officer Michael Brelo broke into tears after a judge acquitted him in the deaths of an unarmed couple who led police on a chase. Brelo alone climbed onto the hood and fired 15 at close range.

Last month in North Carolina, a judge acquitted a former police sergeant of shooting and killing a mentally ill teen armed with a screwdriver.

It can be an uphill battle to prosecute police misconduct. The conviction rate for officers is less than half that of the general public.

In the Freddie Gray case, there has been one acquittal, one mistrial, and the pressure is high for prosecutors to secure a conviction against Officer Goodson.

"It makes sense that Officer Goodson would want to put his fate in the hands of a judge who is supposed to be, and has demonstrated that he is, disassociated from the emotional aspect of this case," said Ruther.

Convincing Judge Barry Williams alone of his innocence, instead of 12 of his peers, is a risk Goodson is willing to take.

The second-degree depraved heart murder charge alone carries a possible sentence of 30 years in prison. The trial will begin on Thursday.

RELATED: 3rd Officer Charged In Gray Case Suing Baltimore's Top Prosecutor

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