Why a Freddie Gray protester may face a tougher sentence than the cop on trial for killing him
In a quiet Baltimore courtroom, three stories above the court where officer William Porter was facing a jury for his alleged role in the death of Freddie Gray, another young African American man was on trial this week for entirely different offenses related to Gray’s death.
Gregory Butler was facing charges for allegedly carrying a knife, trying to steal a cigarettes from a looted 7-Eleven store and escaping from police custody during the riot that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral. He also now faces federal charges over allegedly poking holes in a hose that was being used to put out a fire at CVS.
But while Porter, who is facing manslaughter, was free to leave the courthouse during recess, when Butler walked down the stony marble hall towards the bathroom, several federal agents followed him. They were waiting to take him into custody as soon as he left the courtroom for the two federal felonies they charged him with the day before.
“Can I have a cigarette?” Butler asked the men, some of whom wore Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms jackets, others of whom wore sweatshirts and refused to identify themselves or their agency.
One of the men in a sweatshirt said they would take him into custody if he left the building.
“Am I in custody”? Butler asked.
“Yea, basically,” the unidentified agent said and cracked his neck by tilting his shaved head towards his shoulder.
The felonies didn’t have anything to do with the cigarettes Butler took from the 7-Eleven, but they did have to do with fire and stem from that same day. A photograph of a young man in a gas mask whom authorities have identified as Butler became a symbol of unrest. On live television, as CNN talked to local activist PFK Boom, the man in that mask walked up to a firehose being used to put out the fire at the CVS and he stabbed it, up near the hydrant. Then he stabbed it again, down low. The water shot up into the smoky air.
“What you’re getting an example of is what’s really inside of everybody for about 20 years,” Boom said to CNN.
The federal indictment, which came down on 1 December and was unsealed two days later on 3 December, tells the story of what came next. “The two holes rendered the fire hose inoperable. BCFD firefighters removed the damaged hose from the fire hydrant. The hose was taken out of service. As a result, fire suppression and extinguishment efforts at CVS Pharmacy were impeded and delayed.”
The US attorney’s office charged Butler with aiding and abetting arson, which brings a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years, and with committing or attempting to “obstruct, impede, and interfere with firemen lawfully engaged in the lawful performance of their official duties”, which has a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. Since there is no parole for these charges, if convicted, Greg Butler, will likely spend far more time in prison than any of the officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray. And while the officers were immediately released on bail, Butler was held in jail for over a month with no bail.
Todd Oppenheim, a public defender and candidate for circuit court judge for the city of Baltimore, suspected that even if Cesar Goodson, who is facing the most serious charges in Gray’s death, is convicted of second-degree depraved heart murder, he would not actually spend 20 years in prison. The sentence “could be around 20 years”, Oppenheim explained. “It’s usually a split sentence, because then there’s something that can be hung over them, the possibility of release at some point with supervision … I would strongly suspect that especially judge Williams would hold open the possibility of modifying a sentence.”
But, Oppenheim said, a federal case such as Butler’s is an entirely different ballgame.
“The mandatory and guidelines in terms of sentencing are so much higher,” he said. “It’s really an all-or-none situation.”
As court finished up on a Friday afternoon, federal officers handcuffed him and led him from the courthouse and into custody at the Baltimore City detention center, where they kept him for the weekend until court resumed on Monday.
As he walked away in cuffs, 22-year-old Butler appeared calm. Even though he grew up in a world of drugs, gangs, and violence, these incidents were Butler’s first run-ins with the judicial system.
The fire last time
Butler called himself a “third-generation drug culture kid”, hearkening back to his grandparents’ era when the notorious Baltimore heroin dealer “Little” Melvin Williams, who died last week, helped the mayor quell the riots in 1968 and ruled the streets with heroin.
But his father, he said, came of age in the era of cocaine. “Being raised by a 16-year-old mother, holes in your shoes, lights turned off, a styrofoam cooler, stuff getting all wet, is the biggest inspiration to get out there at a young age to get money,” Butler said of his father, Gregory Butler Sr, who finished a 13-year stint in prison just before Greg was born. His mother, Gerlena Jackson, was an addict for much of her life.
Sitting later at a lunch table in the federal court building in downtown Baltimore, Butler said that in elementary school, he was always the “line leader”, who led the class to recess or lunch until one day he slipped to the back of the line and then away from the class altogether to go look for his mother during one of her long absences. “I went up and down Greenmount [Avenue] looking for her,” he recalled.
By the time he was six he had smoked his first cigarette and his first blunt. He saw his mother, who sometimes sold drugs, get robbed on the front porch when he was seven. Shortly after that, he stole drugs from her and sold them to get money. “I knew she made money that way, so I knew if I wanted it, that’s how I had to get it,” he said.
But the glamour of drugs faded before he even reached adolescence.
“Being independent at such a young age, by the time people start experimenting [with drugs], you’re bored of it,” he said.
He also credited this independence – born of necessity in the crack explosion of the 80s and 90s and the era of Zero Tolerance policies – with his generation’s lack of respect for authority. “A lot of people, children like myself were forced to raise ourselves,” he said with a calm, steely voice. “When you’re forced to raise yourself, you have this idea that authority is authority but it doesn’t really govern you. There was a 10- or 11-year period where my mother was out of my life. If my mother says ‘F me’ then you who are you?”
The Oliver neighborhood in which Butler was raising himself was, in many ways, the center of the drug war and it threatened to suck everyone in as a casualty.
Butler said that when an indictment swept up nearly 50 alleged members of the Black Guerrilla Family gang in 2013, most of those arrested went to middle school with him.
In October 2002, a member of one of the drug crews firebombed the neighbor’s house, where Butler often played, because the mother, Angela Dawson, openly challenged the dealers.
The entire Dawson family, mother and her five children, all of whom were near Greg Butler’s age, died in the conflagration .
“That’s something that’s burned into my memory,” Butler said. “They were my best friends.”
Butler’s life started to change around the time of the fire, when he moved in with his father. “I remember my dad struggling with the bills, we were living with him but he was still paying child support to my mother,” Butler said. But his father had begun to teach the children, showing them the bills and explaining how to read them, even as he wondered how to pay them.
Though his father only had an 11th grade education, Greg excelled in school. “I was ostracized a bit in school because I was smart,” he said. “But nobody would come at me because we came from the same neighborhood.”
He was named a Carson Scholar, after neurosurgeon and current Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, due to his academic record and his community leadership. In the ninth grade, Butler worked at Baltimore Inner City Outings (BICO) and got into camping and was ultimately certified to lead Sierra Club tours.
But by the time he started high school at Baltimore Polytechnic – one of the best high schools in the city – he was all about basketball. His coach, Sam Brand told the Baltimore City Paper that Butler was “a great student athlete here at Poly” even though he experienced hardships. Butler recalled being the most economically disadvantaged person on the team, often missing practice to work.
St Leo University in Florida offered Butler a full scholarship, but he was ultimately not eligible due to a quirk in the way that Baltimore City calculated grade point averages. Poly is a magnet school with a strong academic focus and Butler took seven honors classes his senior year. Every other county in the state adjusted GPA calculations to allow for the added difficulty of honors classes, but according to Brand, who is also a math teacher, the city did not, creating a situation where, as he told the Baltimore Sun at the time: “Butler’s 1.51 in the city would have been a 2.125 in the county,” a GPA which would have allowed him to take the scholarship.
Partially as a result of the Sun’s story, which featured Butler prominently, and a presentation in which he was also featured, the city school system adjusted its GPA calculation – but that didn’t help Butler. Butler said he feels “used and abused” by the situation and still thinks about basketball every day. He says he would not have been in Baltimore in April if he had been in Florida playing ball.
The experience with the system started to radicalize Butler as he struggled to work his way through community college and became fascinated with black history.
He was trying to understand a world whose rules seemed much different for African Americans than they did for white people. Even when he was a basketball star, Butler felt harassed by police because of the way he looked and the neighborhood he lived in. “I live in a drug infested neighborhood. So that gives you leeway to harass everybody in this neighborhood?” he asked.
Butler had numerous specific stories about his run-ins with police, even as he sat in a hall of the courtroom during what should have been the lunch hour for his trial with federal agents tracking his every move.
The youth is the most undervalued, the least knowledgeable of liberties and the judicial system
“Right here on Baltimore street, I remember running for a bus,” he said. “Me and three other friends were running for a bus and we were stopped by police officers looking for someone else. They threw us up against the wall, they choked us out. They tried to punch me in the mouth. If I wouldn’t have ducked, he’d have got a good shot in … This is nothing strange for us. I’ve been pulled over at the bottom of my block before I can go to the next block. The first question I’m asked is: ‘Where the weed?’ … We do have to panic when we see them behind us.”
When Freddie Gray – whose early life closely resembled that of Butler – died in police custody, he knew it could have been him. “When I see Freddie Gray, when I see Mike Brown, I see myself,” he said.
Days of rage
Sitting outside of the circuit courtroom when he was unable to leave, Butler recalled the rage of April and attributed it to a broken system. “Any time we get a chance to go hard at the police, we gonna go hard,” he said of his generation of young black men. “Because they go hard at us every day.”
He said that his generation no longer trusts civil rights leaders or the older generation of protesters – and they certainly don’t trust police, who, Butler felt, hassles them the most. “The youth is the most undervalued, the least knowledgeable of liberties and the judicial system,” he said, and so the police feel they can take advantage of them.
All that rage came out on 27 April, when the schools let out on during the height of protests over Gray’s death and public transportation shut down at Mondawmin Mall, forcing hundreds of students off of buses and right in front of hundreds of police in riot gear. Butler, who was arrested that evening at a looted 7-Eleven across town wearing a green gas mask, didn’t want to talk directly about his actions during the riot at Penn North on 27 April because of pending legal proceedings. But he said he had the device because “if they’re going to teargas us and fight us, we’ve got to fight back in every form and fashion.”
That sentiment, Butler said, came from an increasing number of people who feel like they have nothing to lose. “The most real, most genuine people at the bottom have nothing to lose, so if they risk their life, they’re risking all they got,” he said.
Full court press
When the ATF agents returned Butler to the circuit court in Baltimore on Monday morning, he had been in jail all weekend and still had not seen a federal judge.
The treatment only solidified Butler’s belief in the skewed system.
“The way they treat me gives me a moral calm. I am going against their system,” he said. “When I see things like this and I know it’s unfair and the public knows it’s unfair it gives me warrant to keep going forward.”
When the jury went to deliberate on Monday afternoon, the federal agents handcuffed Butler and transported him to the federal courthouse down the road – over 72 hours after they had taken him into custody. The federal judge, Timothy J Sullivan, was outraged at what he called a “giant sixth amendment issue” that Butler was with “two case agents without a lawyer being present”.
“I’ve got to tell you, I’m troubled by the fact that you arrested him Friday and didn’t get him before a magistrate judge,” Sullivan said to the US attorney. The judge seemed flabbergasted, repeatedly asking “Have you ever heard of anything like this?”
“I’m, I, I, I,” Sullivan sputtered with exasperation. “As they say in the street, I’m not feeling it. It’s rife with problems.”
Still, the US attorney’s office moved to detain Butler as a danger to the community and as a flight risk, even though he still had to go back to face the verdict in his state case. “The government says they want detention but not really because they want him to go back to circuit court to stand trial?” Sullivan asked, incredulous.
But the charges were too serious to rush, especially since the CVS pharmacy that was burning was attached to a senior living facility.
Mark Wagner, the assistant chief of operations of the Baltimore fire department, explained what it would have been like for his men that day. “You can imagine being in an oven and not having a hose line to direct at the fire to take away the heat,” he said. “It’s never a good thing to lose water and to lose pressure on a supply line. It’s very dangerous.”
Ultimately, Judge Sullivan called for a rush order to equip Butler with an ankle monitor so he could go back to the circuit court. He would return to federal court immediately after the verdict was delivered.
It took a while for them to put the ankle monitor on and release him. It seemed for a moment as if no one knew where he was. “Once I wasn’t their concern, they just left me in a room,” Butler said of the federal agents who had been his constant companions over the last couple days.
As a result of the delays – which kept him in the federal court until after his state trial was set to resume – Butler had to hustle the half a dozen blocks separating the courthouses, followed by an investigator for the defense, a former homicide cop, assigned to keep an eye on him.
The jury was split and there was no decision that day.
Butler spent the night at home – he lives with his mother, who has gotten clean, and his fiancee, who is pregnant. And when he arrived at the Clarence Mitchell courthouse in Baltimore the next morning, the federal officers were not there.
The knife charge was dropped after it was revealed that it was a legal pen knife that was not spring loaded. The jury, comprised primarily of elderly African Americans, found Butler guilty on the attempted theft and escape charges in the state case, but judge Melissa Phinn gave him probation rather than a conviction. Still, he was worried that being found guilty on the escape charge would hurt his chances of release on the federal charges as he again traversed those downtown blocks between the state and federal courthouses, wearing a bright blue jacket.
“I wish I would have had some young people on my jury,” he said. “A lot of elders in the community don’t understand the motives behind the riot and uprising on April 27.”
Butler’s federal case was haunted by the ghost of Freddie Gray. Before releasing Butler until trial with some conditions, judge Sullivan noted that “any day now, the trial down the street may end” and put Butler right back in the same position.
“I’m concerned, given the concern in the city, given the precise demographic of Mr Butler, given the verdict, whatever it may be, down the road,” the judge said.
And in the end, Butler embodied those concerns when the judge agreed to release him on condition of a curfew, the same 10pm to 6am curfew that the entire city suffered through in April.
“It’s right back to the same thing,” Butler said. “A deadly calm.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015