BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Opening statements and several witnesses took the stand in the first day of the trial of Lieutenant Brian Rice. He is the highest-ranking officer facing charges in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray.
Prosecutors stressed Lt. Brian Rice's rank -- the highest of any of the officers charged in Freddie Gray's death -- saying as a supervisor, he should have followed a police order to secure Gray with a seat belt inside the police van.
Rice's defense team called Gray combative and belligerent, saying it was too dangerous to belt him in such a confined space, calling his death a freak but tragic accident.
"It's hard to guess what their strategy is, they may be keeping some cards close to the vest," said David Jaros, University of Baltimore School of Law.
Rice was one of the bicycle officers who made the initial contact with Gray and ordered his arrest. Prosecutors dropped one of the charges -- misconduct for a false arrest -- conceding the pursuit of Gray was legal. They still believe Lt. Rice is to blame for failing to keep Gray safe in custody, leaving intact assault, involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment charges.
"It's a very aggressive defense that's being presented here, when you describe Freddie Gray as being combative and belligerent and kicking," said Doug Colbert, University of Maryland law professor.
During aggressive cross-examination, the assistant medical examiner admitted the failure to seat belt Gray alone is not why she ruled his death a homicide. She believes Gray died after standing up inside the van and falling over.
Rice's trial starts amid a backdrop of protests across the country after recent police-involved deaths.
The head of Baltimore's NAACP, Tessa Hill-Aston, shares that outrage.
"Somebody needs to go to jail and maybe it'll make some police -- those that do that -- to hold back and know that they have to have some decisions and some conscience about what they do," said Hill-Aston.
Prosecutors were unable to secure convictions in the past three trials. Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby did come Thursday to watch the opening statements.
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