The verdict by a Baltimore judge found Officer Edward Nero not guilty of four misdemeanors: second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and two counts of misconduct in office.
The 25-year-old Gray was arrested April 12, 2015 after fleeing police, and suffered a broken spine while being transported in the back of a Baltimore police van, unsecured and with his hands and feet bound. He died a week later.
Gray’s treatment and death triggered violent riots in Maryland’s largest city and fueled a national debate about police brutality.
The six police officers being tried over his death — three white, including Nero, and three African Americans, including a woman — claim it was an accident.
The first case ended with a hung jury in December.
Nero, whose case is the second to come to court, chose to be tried by a judge rather than a jury.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams said that after he had carefully weighed all the evidence, “the verdict for each count is not guilty.”
Nero, 30, appeared to wipe his eyes and hugged his attorneys after the verdicts were announced.
One of his lawyers said Nero and his family were “elated that this nightmare is finally over.”
“The state’s attorney for Baltimore city rushed to charge him, as well as the other five officers, completely disregarding the facts of the case and the applicable law,” the attorney, Marc Zayon, said in a statement, according to the Baltimore Sun newspaper.
Williams should now reconsider the remaining cases “and dismiss their charges,” he said.
“Like Officer Nero, these officers have done nothing wrong.”
Williams is black, as are two-thirds of the people of Baltimore, including its Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
– ‘We need accountability’ –
Although West Baltimore — the economically depressed area where Gray was arrested — was the scene of rioting and protests last year after his death, its streets were calm Monday.
Outside the courthouse, around a dozen protesters greeted the verdict with chants of “No Justice, No Peace!” Police helicopters hovered overhead.
Baltimore activist Reverend Westley West sounded incredulous.
“How much longer are we going to lay down and allow the same thing to keep happening?” he said, National Public Radio reported.
“Aggressive policing is not what we need. We need accountability.”
Judge Williams rejected the state’s argument that the defendant acted corruptly or with intent regarding any of the charges made by the state of Maryland.
As for the charge of reckless endangerment, Williams said the state failed to prove Nero was negligent in preventing Gray from being put in a dangerous position. That applied to both when Gray was arrested and when he was handcuffed, shackled and placed in a police van, he said.
Williams also rejected prosecutors’ charges that Nero detained Gray without justification and assaulted him during the arrest.
Garrett Miller — another of the officers facing charges — testified during the five-day trial that he alone took Gray into custody after a police chase.
“The contact by the defendant was legally justified” during the course of the arrest and placement in the van, Williams said.
Regarding the failure to secure Gray with a seat belt, Williams said Nero was not criminally liable because other officers, and not Nero, were inside the vehicle preparing Gray for transport.
Baltimore’s mayor acknowledged the verdict, saying it would be followed by a police review and urging residents to let the process run its course.
“This is our American system of justice and police officers must be afforded the same justice system as every other citizen in this city, state and country,” Rawlings-Blake said in a statement.
“We once again ask the citizens to be patient and to allow the entire process to come to a conclusion.”
The next Gray-related trial, of the police van driver Officer Caesar Goodson Jr, is set to begin in early June.
But with many police critics in Baltimore hoping Williams’s narrow ruling on Monday doesn’t preclude convictions of those more directly implicated in Gray’s death, some legal experts say Maryland’s attorney Marilyn Mosby overstretched in seeking to indict all six officers involved in his arrest and van transport.
“A conviction is going to be very difficult to obtain” in the coming cases, J. Wyndal Gordon, an attorney independently observing the Gray cases, said.
“This case really gutted the remaining cases.”