STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A medical examiner has been testifying in a Baltimore courtroom. The question is how a young black man - Freddie Gray - suffered a severe spinal injury while in police custody. The examiner was called to the trial of William Porter, the first of six officers charged in Gray's death. He's accused of failing to put Gray in a seatbelt and failing to call for medical assistance. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has been attending the trial.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Over two days of testimony, assistant medical examiner Carol Allan has detailed the injury that led to Gray's death. One of his vertebrae slid over another, she said, pinching the spinal cord at a 90-degree angle. She said this would have impaired the use of Gray's arms and legs and his muscles used for breathing. Without medical help, she said, Gray slowly suffocated. But how did the injury happen? Allan rejected the defense suggestion that Gray could have hurt himself. She said she believes Gray - with no seatbelt and hands and legs shackled - managed to stand up in the van, then was thrown forward as it moved and stopped. She likened the impact to a diving accident in shallow water. Allan told jurors she thinks this happened between the van's second stop, when witnesses said Gray was shaking the van, and its fourth stop. That's when Officer William Porter checked on Gray and had a key exchange with him. Porter told investigators that Gray asked for help, said he couldn't breathe, and when Porter asked if he wanted a medic, said yes. Gray also said he couldn't move, and Porter helped pull him up onto a bench. Medical examiner Allan says all this is consistent with the injuries she found at Gray's autopsy. A neurosurgeon brought in as a prosecution witness agreed, and both said Gray's condition likely worsened as he continued to ride in the van. Allan ruled Gray's death a homicide, though said that does not imply intent to kill. In a heated exchange, defense lawyer Joseph Murtha tried to cast doubt. He accused the medical examiner of making up her theory. Kneeling on the courtroom floor, hands behind him, Murtha said it would have been too tight in the van for Gray to have wriggled his way up. And what was the physical evidence that he stood? Allan conceded there was none. In fact, officers say they only saw Gray lying face down. Murtha also tried to shift blame to the van's driver. He said Officer Porter told the driver they needed to take Gray to the hospital. What if the driver had listened and done that, Murtha asked. Then, Allan said, she would not have ruled Gray's death a homicide. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.