The protesters will be back at Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office on Friday.
There were 60 demonstrators last week, and 40 the week before. Their message for the “Freeman Friday” gatherings is the same, week after week: Skip the grand jury process and bring criminal charges against two Minneapolis police officers in connection with the November officer-involved shooting death of Jamar Clark. Grand juries, they say, never indict police officers.
It’s one of the most-debated criminal investigations in Freeman’s tenure as county attorney. On Tuesday, he announced that he had returned the case to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) for more investigation. And on Monday alone, 95 people called his office, urging Freeman to charge the officers without a grand jury, said Chuck Laszewski, Freeman’s spokesman.
But Freeman, citing a practice that’s gone on for three decades, has previously said he would take the case to the grand jury. The procedure is used “when a police officer’s use of force results in the death of a civilian,” Laszewski said. When asked again earlier this week if he was still wedded to a grand jury, Freeman said he would not comment.
Activists want Freeman to forgo the secret proceedings and decide himself whether to charge the officers.
“The responsibility lies on his shoulders,” Nekima Levy-Pounds, Minneapolis NAACP president, said in an interview several weeks ago. “He has to explain to the public why he did not prosecute. The public will be able to judge on the merits whether the decision was biased.”
And if they’re dissatisfied, she said, Freeman, who is elected, can be voted out.
“We review our procedures on a somewhat regular basis,” Laszewski said, “and if the decision is made in the future not to use the grand jury in the Jamar Clark shooting, then we will certainly let you and everyone else know.”
Grand jury system
Clark, who was black, was shot in the head Nov. 15 in a scuffle with two white Minneapolis police officers who were responding to a disturbance call in the early-morning hours outside a north Minneapolis apartment building. He died Nov. 16.
Protesters say Clark was murdered, and witnesses have said Clark was handcuffed and unarmed. The Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis says that he was not handcuffed and that he was reaching for an officer’s gun. The two officers, Mark Ringgenberg, 30, and Dustin Schwarze, 28, were put on administrative leave, but they returned to police desk jobs last month.
If the case goes to a grand jury, that group would be composed of 16 to 23 people, selected from voter registration and driver’s license lists by the same random process as trial jury pools. While trial juries in criminal cases determine guilt or innocence, grand jurors decide only if there is probable cause that a crime was committed.
“In this type of case, I would take it to a grand jury,” Tom Foley, former Ramsey County attorney, said in a recent interview. “We’d say to jurors, ‘Here’s the facts, here’s the law.’ We’d give them alternatives: first- or second-degree murder or manslaughter.”
One weakness of the grand jury system is that the prosecutor has so much control over the process in presenting the case and questioning witnesses, said Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul.
Nonetheless, Daly said, he trusts the grand jury system — a jury of the people — and thinks “it is proper and fitting” for a grand jury to decide if police officers are indicted.
Still, questions arise about how prosecutors, who rely on police to bring them cases, might be influenced when investigating officer-involved shootings.
“I think there are times when the prosecutor protects the relationship with the police by using the grand jury as a screen,” said University of St. Thomas law Prof. Mark Osler, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Detroit.
The relationship is a conflict of interest, said Bruce Nestor, a Minneapolis lawyer and past president of the National Lawyers Guild. “Given the working relationship between prosecutors and police, the grand jury provides cover for a prosecutor’s decision not to charge an officer,” he said.
Nestor, who favors an independent special prosecutor’s office for cases like Clark’s, also believes that having the BCA investigate is a conflict of interest because that agency often works with police.
Bruce Gordon, BCA spokesman, previously said the agency is “an independent fact-finder and does not decide or determine the outcome of a case.” After Freeman announced that he was sending the case back for more work, Gordon said it was a common practice of prosecutors.
Meanwhile, Friday noon protests outside Freeman’s office will continue, said Mel Reeves, a member of Twin Cities Coalition 4 Justice 4 Jamar Clark. “The people who shot the unarmed guy should be charged,” Reeves said. “We are not going to let this go.”
Freeman is out of the office recovering from surgery after slipping on an icy step and hurting his leg. He said he hopes to make a decision by the end of March on whether charges will be filed. However, Lazsewski said there is an outside chance that it could take longer.