KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
A Baltimore police officer on trial in the death of a young black man took the stand in his own defense today. Prosecutors say William Porter failed to seatbelt Freddie Gray into a police van and failed to call for medical aid. Gray broke his neck while in custody and later died. Today Porter told jurors that Freddie Gray seemed just fine when he checked on him in that police van. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has been at the trial and joins us now. And first, tell us about officer William Porter and his role the day of Gray's arrest.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Officer Porter is 26 years old. He's also black like Freddie Gray. He's been on the force for two years. He's very calm and confident on the stand. He says he was called in as backup the day of Gray's arrest. He was doing crowd control. People were really angry about the way police were treating Gray. Porter says he knew Freddie Gray and people in that neighborhood by their first names and he had a report with them, and he was trying to calm them down. He says he did not see Gray when he was first placed in the van or see whether he was seat-belted.
MCEVERS: Prosecutors have spent a lot of time in this trial talking about a certain stop of the police van when Porter checked on Gray. As you have reported, they say that's when Gray asked for help and he couldn't breathe and said he wanted a medic. What did Porter say about that interaction?
LUDDEN: Well, first of all, he says that Gray never said he couldn't breathe there. Porter says this was a misunderstanding, that when he told that to a police investigator, he was referring to Gray's initial arrest when he asked for an asthma inhaler. Then, later, at this fourth stop of the van, this crucial interaction, Porter says that Gray was speaking normally. He was making eye contact. He says he used his own muscles when Porter helped to pull him up from the floor onto a bench, so suggesting he was clearly not yet paralyzed by a broken neck.
He says Gray wanted a medic, but he wouldn't say why. Porter says he thought he was faking it, and he also said, you know, you need a complaint of injury if you're going to call a medic, and I didn't have one. So he says he and the van driver talked about taking Gray to the hospital instead. He said that's because central booking wouldn't take Gray if he told them he needed to go to a hospital, so they were just going to take him there and get him cleared.
MCEVERS: So it sounds like this would refute, to the prosecution's contention, that Freddie Gray had already fallen in this van and broken his neck by this point, right?
LUDDEN: Yes. And the defense also brought in a forensic pathologist today who also refuted that theory. Dr. Vincent Di Maio said he thinks the spinal cord injury was so catastrophic that Gray would have been immediately paralyzed and unable to breathe, not sort of gradually like Maryland's medical examiner has suggested. The expert today said he thinks Gray was injured just before he was found unconscious in the van and that he would have called it an accident, not a homicide.
MCEVERS: And what about officer William Porter's failure to seatbelt Freddie Gray?
LUDDEN: Well, Porter says he's been involved in 150 arrests and has never once seat-belted a detainee. So he has clearly not followed department policy here. Although, legal experts say that that is a civil violation and not necessarily a criminal one.
MCEVERS: That's NPR's Jennifer Ludden speaking to us from Baltimore. Thanks so much.
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