The Special Court of Appeals has agreed to hear arguments on a major 5th Amendment issue stemming from the Baltimore City trial of the main defendant in the Freddie Gray case. In doing so, Maryland’s second highest court also ordered that the circuit court postpone the trial just hours before jury selection was set to commence. Oral arguments are set for the first week in March, allowing the Attorney General and the defense attorneys time to respond to each other’s legal briefs. The issue up for debate is whether the first defendant, whose case is still pending after a mistrial was declared, will be compelled to testify against one or more of the co-defendants. Under normal circumstances a defendant with pending charges would never be required to testify in any matter related to those pending charges. But the government is attempting to argue that their case is far from ordinary, and that the first defendant should be forced to take the stand against his former fellow officer.
The right to be protected from self-incrimination is one of the foundations of our criminal justice system, and “pleading the 5th” is one of the few legal concepts that comes to life as often in real cases as it does in Hollywood courtroom dramas. But in the case of the first officer, whose case resulted in a mistrial, the government is arguing there would be no self-incrimination implications should he be forced to testify against the other defendants. The government offered use immunity to the first officer, which means that they promised in writing to refrain from using any of the testimony against him at later time. Therefore the Attorney General will argue that there is no possibility that the officer’s testimony could get him into more trouble. This argument was compelling enough at least for the Baltimore City Circuit Court judge to buy, but don’t expect the appeals courts to be convinced as easily.
The defense introduced two main rebuttals to the government’s immunity argument. The attorneys argued that if the officer’s testimony is even slightly different the second and third time around he could face perjury charges, and they called attention to the numerous times that prosecutors called the first officer a liar during the December trial in support of this argument. The defense lawyers also suggested that even if the officer is eventually acquitted in the city circuit court he could still face federal charges. Per Department of Justice orders, federal prosecutors have been monitoring this case and were seen in court throughout the trial. The feds have made no such offer of immunity, and theoretically could use every bit of compelled state court testimony in a federal prosecution. While this seems like the stronger argument of the two, the shear historical strength of the 5th Amendment is perhaps the government’s greatest challenge to compelling the officer’s testimony. Ordering a defendant with a pending criminal case to testify against a co-defendant would be a direct shot at the 5th Amendment, and the implications would run contrary to decades of case law upholding the right to remain silent. The circuit court judge has a valid desire to move theses cases along, but the appeals courts will look at the bigger picture, and a ruling that undermines the constitutional protections afforded by the 5th Amendment is unlikely.
Benjamin Herbst is a Maryland criminal defense lawyer who handles all types of cases in both state and federal court. Benjamin is skilled attorney with experience in cases ranging from DUI and drug possession to murder. Contact Benjamin anytime at 410-207-2598.
Trial of Baltimore Officer Goodson postponed by Maryland appeals court, baltimoresun.com.