BALTIMORE (REUTERS) - A Baltimore police officer was charged with murder and five others with lesser charges in the death of a black man who suffered a critical neck injury while riding inside a police van, the city's chief prosecutor said on Friday.
Freddie Gray, who died in hospital a week after his arrest on April 12, was in handcuffs and shackles but otherwise was not restrained inside the van, a violation of police department policy, prosecutor Marilyn Mosby said at a news conference.
The Maryland state medical examiner had ruled Gray's death a homicide, Mosby said. The officer charged with murder was the driver of the vehicle. She said the officers failed to give Gray the medical attention he asked for and that his arrest was unlawful.
The death of 25-year-old Gray has become the latest flashpoint in a national outcry over the treatment of African-Americans and other minority groups by US law enforcement.
"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," said Mosby, a 35-year-old African-American who took office in January.
The decision to bring charges and the speed at which Mosby made the announcement, a day after the police department handed over an internal report, seemed to catch Baltimore and the country by surprise.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said five of the six officers were under arrest.
The charges brought jubilation and relief to people on the streets of West Baltimore, the neighbourhood where angry people looted, burned cars and clashed with police on Monday night.
"I am shocked that they were charged but I am happy they were charged," said James Crump, 46, a medical technician.
"People are happy and celebrating, and it's not even New Year's Eve."
Baltimore endured a night of rioting 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.
After Mosby spoke, members of the gang Bloods, Crips and Black Guerilla Family stood at the centre of a Baltimore intersection holding up bandannas tied together to show unity. Gang members were part of a force of volunteer peacekeepers after Monday's violence.
RANGE OF CHARGES
Charges against the six police officers range from second-degree "depraved heart" 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 murder count. Other offences carry prison terms of between three years to 10 years.
Goodson also faces a charge of involuntary manslaughter, as do three others: Sergeant Alicia D. White, Officer William G. Porter and Lieutenant Brian Rice. All six face lesser charges, including Officer Edward M. Nero and Officer Garrett E. Miller.
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.
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."
Mosby promptly rejected a call by the union representing the officers for the appointment of a special prosecutor.
In an open letter, the Fraternal Order of Police, Baltimore City Lodge No. 3, said Mosby had conflicts of interest because she is married to a city councilman with political aspirations and knows a Gray family lawyer. The union said the officers were only doing their jobs and were not responsible for Gray's death.
Representatives of Gray's family were not immediately available for comment.
MEDICAL EXAMINER RULES DEATH A HOMICIDE
Mosby said the fatal injury occurred after the van stopped to allow officers to remove Gray, shackle his legs and put him back inside, one of four stops between the arrest and the van's arrival at the a booking centre.
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. She also said that Gray's arrest was illegal. Officers had said that he was carrying a switchblade knife in violation of the law, but the prosecutor said it was in fact a folding knife that was legal to carry.
Mosby said her office had been conducting a parallel investigation while awaiting the findings of the internal police probe.