Baltimore approves settlement in Freddie Gray case

Last Updated Sep 9, 2015 12:20 PM EDT

BALTIMORE - A city board approved on Wednesday a $6.4 million settlement with the family of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died a week after he was critically injured while in police custody.

The settlement, announced Tuesday, could play a role in whether a judge decides to move the trials for the six officers charged in Gray's death out of the city.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other members of the Board of Estimates voted unanimously to approve the settlement Wednesday morning, just a day before Judge Barry Williams will hear arguments on whether the trials should be moved to a different jurisdiction. Defense attorneys have asked for a change of venue, citing pre-trial publicity and concern that the officers will not receive fair trials if they are tried in Baltimore.

Gray family attorney Billy Murphy on Wednesday applauded the mayor for helping spearhead the settlement and said that if a lawsuit had been filed, it could have taken years to play out in the courts. He called the settlement civil justice for the Gray family.

Murphy also said the mayor has pledged to start a pilot program where police in the Western District neighborhood, where Gray was arrested, will wear body cameras. He said the cameras will help drastically reduce police misconduct as well as frivolous complaints from citizens.

The settlement in the case appears to be among the largest such payments in police death cases in recent years. It was reached before Gray's parents and his estate filed a lawsuit, although they had filed claims with the city and its police department.

Deputy City Solicitor David Ralph said the settlement payout will have no impact on city operations or budgeted programs.

City Solicitor George Nilson said the settlement "spares us from having the scab of April of this year being picked over and over and over for five or six years to come. That would not be good for the city," he said.

CBS Baltimore, citing a city lawyer, says the settlement may actually save Baltimore money because federal damages are uncapped. Maryland caps damages from police brutality cases at $400,000, according to the station.

Rawlings-Blake acknowledged at a news conference that a settlement before criminal proceedings were resolved was unusual but said it was in the best interest of protecting taxpayers. She said negotiations lasted for months.

"I again want to extend my most sincere condolences to the family of Mr. Freddie Gray," Rawlings-Blake said. "I hope that this settlement will bring some measure of closure to his family and to his friends."

Although the city said in a statement that the settlement does not resolve any factual disputes, and expressly does not constitute an admission of liability on the part of the city, its police department or any of the officers, experts say the city's willingness to pre-empt a lawsuit could have an effect on the officers' ability to receive an impartial trial in Baltimore - an issue Williams will likely decide Thursday.

"If I was an attorney for a defendant I'd be revising my motion right now to say the settlement was made to persuade the jury pool that the officers did something wrong," said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Douglas Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey Law School, said the settlement is a step in restoring the public's faith in local government and mending the relationship between the citizens of Baltimore and elected officials.

Other settlements have varied. In July, New York City settled for $5.9 million with the family of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after being put in a white police officer's chokehold. The city of Chicago settled in 2001 a wrongful death lawsuit by the family of LaTanya Haggerty, a black woman who was shot to death by a police officer who thought her cellphone was a weapon, for $18 million.

The head of Baltimore's police union condemned the agreement.

"To suggest that there is any reason to settle prior to the adjudication of the pending criminal cases is obscene and without regard to the fiduciary responsibility owed to the taxpaying citizens of the city," Lt. Gene Ryan said in a statement.

All six officers, including Edward Nero and Garrett Miller, are charged with second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. Lt. Brian Rice, Sgt. Alicia White and Officer William Porter also face a manslaughter charge, while Officer Caesar Goodson faces the most serious charge of all: second-degree "depraved-heart" murder.