Baltimore will pay to settle civil claims, avoids public lawsuit
BY YVONNE WENGER
AND MARK PUENTE
Baltimore plans to pay Freddie Gray’s family $6.4 million as a settlement for civil claims in his arrest and death — an extraordinary payment in a lawsuit against city police.
The settlement — which was approved at Wednesday’s meeting of the city’s spending panel — will be paid out over two years, according to the mayor’s office. The five-member board is controlled by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
The payment is larger than the total of more than 120 other lawsuits brought against the police department for alleged brutality and misconduct since 2011.
Gray, 25, died in April after sustaining a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. In the hours after his funeral, the city erupted into rioting, arson and looting. The National Guard was called in to help restore order, and a citywide curfew was put in place.
Cases moves forward
Six officers who were part of Gray’s arrest and transport in a police van have been charged with crimes ranging from murder to assault; all have pleaded not guilty. A pretrial motions hearing was scheduled for Thursday for a judge to decide whether to move the cases out of Baltimore; defense attorneys say the officers cannot get a fair trial here because of the intense publicity surrounding the case.
Billy Murphy, the lawyer representing Gray’s family, declined to comment early this week. A spokeswoman for Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby also had no comment.
The city is accepting all civil liability in Gray’s arrest and death, but does not acknowledge any wrongdoing by the police, according to a statement from Rawlings-Blake’s administration.
“The proposed settlement agreement going before the Board of Estimates should not be interpreted as a judgment on the guilt or innocence of the officers facing trial,” the mayor said in a statement. “This settlement is being proposed solely because it is in the best interest of the city, and avoids costly and protracted litigation that would only make it more difficult for our city to heal and potentially cost taxpayers many millions more in damages.”
The mayor’s office declined to answer questions about the settlement, including why it was brought to the spending panel before any lawsuit was filed.
Under the proposed settlement, the city would pay $2.8 million during the current fiscal year and $3.6 million in next year, the city said.
By entering into a settlement, the city would avoid a public lawsuit that could have played out in court. In such city settlements, a clause has stated that both sides cannot talk publicly about the case.
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, a member of the Board of Estimates, will support the payout, his spokesman Lester Davis said.
“The council president felt strongly that the matter of the settlement needed to be addressed, because you have a situation where a lengthy legal proceeding in terms of the civil case would not necessarily be in the best interest of the city,” Davis said.
Because the civil case was likely to land in federal court — where it would not be subject to a state cap on payouts — Young believed the settlement was prudent, Davis said. “It was in the best interest of taxpayers of the city to work with the family to settle case,” Davis said.
Impact on trials
David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor and an expert on police misconduct issues, said the settlement would not impact the six officers’ criminal trials. It’s easier for plaintiffs to prove civil liability than it is for a prosecutor to prove criminal guilt, he noted.
But he cautioned the settlement could hinder the officers’ ability to get a fair trial in Baltimore.
“If potential jurors don’t understand the distinction, and they just think the city is admitting the police officers are at fault, a judge would tell them otherwise in jury instructions,” Harris said. “But a lot of folks might still carry the thought of the civil settlement with them as potential jurors. So I would expect the civil settlement to come up in defense motions for change of venue.”