By Ian Simpson
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - A judge on Wednesday ordered individual trials for six Baltimore police officers charged in the death of a black man from an injury in custody, a case that fed the U.S. debate on police treatment of minorities.
Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams also rejected defense motions calling for charges to be dropped and State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby and her office to recuse themselves from the Freddie Gray case.
The death of Gray, 25, in April from a severe spinal injury suffered in the back of a police van drew worldwide attention when it triggered protests and a day of rioting, arson and looting.
Williams ordered separate trials for the defendants. He rejected a prosecution motion that Officer Caesar Goodson, the van driver; Officer Edward Nero, who had helped arrest Gray; and Sergeant Alicia White, who was an on-duty supervisor, should be tried together and the other three separately.
"Having Officers Goodson and Nero together is not in the interest of justice," he said.
Goodson faces a second-degree murder charge, Nero is accused of misdemeanor assault, and White is charged with manslaughter. Defense attorneys had argued that the six officers should be tried separately.
The trial had been scheduled for Oct. 13. It was not immediately clear what the trial schedule will be given Williams' ruling.
Williams rejected the defense contention that Mosby violated her obligation to assure a fair trial when she announced the charges at a news conference as the largely black city of 620,000 people was in turmoil.
Williams said that point would best be settled in a misconduct proceeding, not in his courtroom. He said Mosby's comments did not warrant dropping charges.
Defense arguments that Mosby's comments would prejudice jurors could be raised when a jury is selected, Williams said. Lawyers for the officers had contended that Mosby had publicized evidence when she announced the charges.
Williams also turned back the defense request for recusal. The defense contended that Mosby's office had investigated the case and thus created a conflict of interest.
Prosecutors contend Gray was arrested illegally since he was put in handcuffs before officers found a banned switchblade knife in his pocket.
Another pretrial hearing is set for Sept. 10 on whether the case should be moved from Baltimore because of publicity surrounding the trial.
Security at the downtown courthouse was enhanced for the hearing and a handful of protesters rallied outside, decrying what they called the militarization of police. One person was arrested and charged with assault.
Gray's death followed a string of police-involved killings of unarmed black men, notably in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City and North Charleston, South Carolina, and fueled a national debate on police treatment of minorities.
Gray was arrested on April 12 after a foot chase in crime-ridden West Baltimore. He was bundled into Goodson's transport van while in handcuffs and shackles but was not seat-belted. He died a week later from his spinal injury.
Three of the six officers are black and three are white.
Baltimore has recorded 225 homicides this year, more than for all of 2014, according to a tally by the Baltimore Sun.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Additional reporting by Donna Owens; Editing by Eric Walsh and Eric Beech)