By Scott Malone and Ian Simpson
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Baltimore's chief prosecutor charged one police officer with murder on Friday and five others with lesser crimes in the death of a young black man who suffered a critical neck injury in the back of a police van, a case that fueled new anger over police treatment of minorities.
The swift decision by Marilyn Mosby, who has been in the position only since January, to charge the six officers in the death of Freddie Gray caught many by surprise in a city hit Monday night by its worst civil unrest in decades.
Mosby made her announcement hours after the Maryland state medical examiner had ruled the death a homicide and a day after police handed her office the findings of its internal review of Gray's April 12 arrest.
The officer who drove the police vehicle in which Gray was taken after his arrest was charged with second-degree murder. All six officers were under arrest on Friday and have been suspended without pay, while the police officers' union said they were not responsible for Gray's death.
"We are disappointed in the apparent rush to judgment given the fact the investigation into this matter has not been concluded," said Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police.
Mosby, who also rejected the union's call for a special prosecutor, earned praise from protesters and Gray's family.
"We were shocked, and it was a good shock that justice had been approached in this forthright and courageous manner by this prosecutor," said family attorney William H. "Billy" Murphy.
Rioters burned buildings and looted stores in Baltimore on the night after Gray's funeral on Monday, and protests spread to other major cities in a reprise of demonstrations set off by police killings last year of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, New York and elsewhere.
Gray, 25, sustained his fatal injury while riding in a police van, the prosecutor said, citing the autopsy report. Gray succumbed to his spinal injuries in hospital on April 19.
"To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America, I heard your call for 'no justice, no peace.' Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man," Mosby, a 35-year-old African-American, said at a news conference.
JUBILATION ON STREETS
Officers cuffed Gray's hands behind his back and shackled his legs but did not secure him with a seatbelt while the van was moving, a violation of police department policy. Then, with "depraved indifference," officers ignored Gray's repeated pleas for medical attention, Mosby said.
The charges brought jubilation and relief to the streets of Baltimore after nearly two weeks of peaceful protests, punctuated by Monday's rioting.
"It was the people, it was the people out in the streets that made this happen," said Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, a civil rights activist, as he joined a march on Friday evening. "It is up to us to stay out here, to keep up the pressure."
In Ferguson and New York last year, grand juries decided against charging officers who were involved in the deaths of two unarmed black men. The news triggered rioting in the St. Louis suburb and days of protest marches in New York and other cities.
Charges against the six police officers range from second-degree murder to manslaughter to assault and misconduct in office.
Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr., the driver of the police vehicle, faces a maximum penalty of 30 years if convicted on the second-degree murder count. Other offenses carry prison terms of between three years to 10 years.
Goodson also faces a charge of involuntary manslaughter, as are three others: Sgt. Alicia D. White, Officer William G. Porter and Lt. Brian Rice. All six face lesser charges, including Officer Edward M. Nero and Officer Garrett E. Miller.
President Barack Obama took the unusual step of commenting on charges in an open case, highlighting the importance that the issue of police conduct toward minority groups has assumed over the past year.
"It is absolutely vital that the truth comes out in what happened to Freddie Gray," Obama said. "I think what the people in Baltimore want more than anything else is the truth. That’s what people in our country expect."
The incident that has commanded national attention began on April 12, when officers on bicycles made eye contact with Gray in a high-crime neighborhood, police said. The man immediately fled with the officers in pursuit.
When they caught up to him, Gray was handcuffed behind his back and dragged by the arms, screaming, into a waiting van, a bystander's video footage shows.
The prosecutor said Gray's arrest was illegal. Officers had said that he was carrying a switchblade knife in violation of the law, but she said it was in fact a folding knife that was legal to carry.
Mosby said the fatal injury occurred after the van stopped to allow officers to shackle Gray's legs and put him back inside, one of four stops between the arrest and the van's arrival at the a booking center. Officers failed to secure Gray in seat restraints at every stage of the ride, she said.
"Mr. Gray suffered a severe and critical neck injury as a result of being handcuffed, shackled by his feet and unrestrained inside of the BPD wagon," said Mosby, whose family includes generations of law enforcement officers.
Gray was no longer breathing when he was finally removed from the van, Mosby said.
(Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Frank McGurty and Mary Milliken; Editing by Grant McCool)