US prosecutors have failed for the second time in their bid to hold Baltimore police accountable for the arrest and death of Freddie Gray which triggered riots a year ago.
A judge on Monday (local time) cleared Officer Edward Nero of assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct, concluding that Nero played little role in Gray's arrest and wasn't responsible for the failure to buckle the black man into the police van where he suffered a broken neck.
Upon hearing the verdict, Nero hugged his lawyer and appeared to wipe away a tear.
Nero, who is white, was the second of six officers charged in the case to stand trial. The manslaughter case against Officer William Porter ended in a mistrial in December when the jury deadlocked. Prosecutors plan to retry him in September.
David Weinstein, a Florida lawyer and former federal civil rights prosecutor, said the verdict will probably serve as a "wake-up call" for prosecutors.
"The state's attorney was trying to balance what she had with the public outcry and call to action given the climate in Baltimore and across the US concerning policing, and I think she was overreaching."
Gray died a week after suffering a spinal injury in the back of the van while he was handcuffed and shackled but not belted in.
His death set off looting and arson that prompted authorities to declare a citywide curfew and call out the National Guard to quell unrest in Baltimore.
Gray's name became a rallying cry in the growing furore over the deaths of black men in clashes with police.
Nero, 30, waived his right to a jury trial, choosing instead to let Circuit Judge Barry Williams decide his fate. The assault charge alone carried up to 10 years in prison.
"The state's theory has been one of recklessness and negligence," the judge said in his ruling. "There has been no evidence that the defendant intended for a crime to occur."
Nero remains on desk duty and still faces a departmental investigation that could result in disciplinary action.
Gray's family settled with the city for US$6.4 million in September.
A lawyer for the family, Billy Murphy, said they respected the verdict, and he commended the judge for resisting "enormous pressure" and showing "tremendous courage in ruling against public opinion".
On the morning of April 12, 2015 Lt Brian Rice was on patrol in a high-crime neighbourhood when he made eye contact with Gray and Gray ran away. Rice called for backup, and Nero and Officer Garrett Miller responded.
According to testimony, Miller jumped off his bicycle, caught up with Gray and put him in handcuffs. Gray was placed in the back of the van, seated on the bench.
A few blocks away the van stopped, and Rice and Miller took Gray, who police said had been kicking, screaming and shaking the van, out of the wagon, placed him in leg irons and replaced his metal cuffs with plastic ones.
The officers, with Nero's help, loaded Gray back into the van, sliding him in on his belly, head-first.
Nero's lawyers said Nero touched Gray only twice - first to help him up from the ground after he had been handcuffed and was asking for an inhaler, then to help put him back in the van.
Prosecutors argued that police had no probable cause to arrest Gray. But the judge said that Nero was not involved in the arrest, so the question of whether it was improper was irrelevant.