Insulate grand juries from politics

By Editorial Board

The deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of the police and the grand jury decisions not to indict the officers involved sparked a movement—Black Lives Matter—that has grown as discussion of police brutality continues across the country. 

Though the police officers responsible for the deaths of Garner and Brown will not have to answer to a judge or jury for their actions—Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson, who shot Brown, will not be charged in the shooting, according to a March 4 U.S. Department of Justice memorandum—there will soon be another opportunity for a grand jury to rise to the occasion and indict a police officer who shot another young black boy dead. But if recent events have shown anything, the grand jury process has allowed reckless police behavior to slip through the cracks of the justice system.

On Nov. 22, 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by a Cleveland police officer in a public park. Rice had been wandering the park with a toy airsoft gun when Cleveland police officers jumped a curb at the park in their patrol car and gunned him down. 

In coming weeks, evidence gathered by the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office will be handed over to Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty, who will present the evidence in the shooting of Rice to a grand jury. The grand jury—an ineffective judicial forum in the case of fatal police shootings—will then decide whether or not to indict the officer responsible for shooting Rice. A decision to indict would move the case to a trial where the Rice family may have the chance to seek justice for Tamir. 

Grand juries were originally meant to give citizens the opportunity to bring criminals to justice. A neighborhood watch of sorts that comes to a majority decision on whether to indict a defendant, grand juries are used to investigate cases while maintaining the confidentiality of witness testimonies. However, in the case of fatal police shootings, grand juries have often made the decidedly contentious decision not to indict.

The decision not to indict is not entirely the fault of the grand jury, though. Prosecutors assigned to grand juries present evidence and testimonies in the hopes of taking a case to court. Unfortunately, when police are involved in grand jury cases, prosecutors must decide the sort of picture they want to paint. Prosecutors often work closely with police, making grand juries involving fatal police shootings or police brutality difficult to maneuver.

Prosecutors have the power to sway a grand jury any way they deem fit. Would it benefit the prosecutor to not indict a police officer—in effect avoiding aggravating or inconveniencing an entire police department—the prosecutor has the opportunity to skew what is presented to the grand jury. 

The testimonies and evidence presentation in the Ferguson grand jury process were disgustingly curated, expressing a distinct bias by allowing Wilson to testify and showing exculpatory evidence in the process. This is indicative of not wanting to prosecute Wilson to the fullest extent of the law, if at all.

The U.S. judicial system is already a deeply flawed enterprise that would much rather side with law enforcement than concede that police are anything but noble in their line of duty. Prosecutors who actively choose to reinforce the “white knight” police myth in order to save face are just another part of the problem that kills, jails and institutionalizes thousands of young black men each year.

As the city of Cleveland moves toward a grand jury in the case of the Tamir Rice shooting, an independent prosecutor who is not in bed with the police department should be appointed rather than an elected attorney who may be operating under a questionable agenda. The appointing of a special prosecutor is a provision that has not been utilized in cases of this magnitude. It is a provision that is available and should absolutely be used in contentious circumstances such as these.