Prosecutors are an important reason fueling the loss of confidence expressed by communities of color in the legal system’s ability to bring justice in cases of police abuse. In cases of officer-involved shootings of civilians, many prosecutors manipulate the Grand Jury system with the frustrating outcome of the officer being exonerated of all wrongdoing. This pattern arises from an inherent conflict of interest that leads to this unacceptable impunity.
The most recent controversial case is that of young Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, who was killed by two policemen, Timothy Loehman and Frank Garmback. The Grand Jury exonerated both officers in the killing the child who held a toy gun. Critics assert that the prosecution’s intention in presenting evidence was to protect the police, not to prosecute them. If so, it is not an anomaly but the norm.
The Grand Jury system is designed to be a tool of prosecutors. The prosecutor decides which evidence to present and which witnesses to question without the right to refute as would be the case in a trial. They are in full control of the narrative presented to the Grand Jury within the closed environment of absolute secrecy. For an individual to be charged with a crime depends on the prosecutor’s desire to do so or not.
The reality is that the prosecutor is an elected official who works day in and day out with the police in solving cases. He or she also receives campaign contributions from police unions for his/her election campaign fund. In cases of police shootings of civilians, these conflicts of interests may outweigh the prosecutor’s commitment to the larger community.
This is an ethical violation of professional standards established by the American Bar Association, and thus provides a legal opportunity to make changes in the practice. In California beginning this year, the Grand Jury is barred from cases involving the police, while in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, the Grand Jury system, considered obsolete, no longer exists. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wanted to make changes that led to head-on conflict with the District Attorney of New York City, who saw his power being threatened
Instead of building trust, the current Grand Jury system creates doubt. Its secret processes, its prosecutors who follow their own interests instead of the public’s, and the all-too-often exoneration of wrongdoing, leads to the public’s growing lack of confidence that justice can be found.