Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman will eliminate the long-standing and secret use of a grand jury in police-involved shootings, including the death of Jamar Clark.
For the first time in at least 40 years, Freeman and several of his top prosecutors will investigate and determine whether or not there will be charges against two Minneapolis officers involved in the fatal shooting of Clark in November. A decision in the case is expected by the end of the month.
Activists who had long pushed Freeman's office not to use a grand jury in the Clark shooting praised the decision, crediting multiple protests and demands for accountability.
"I am overjoyed that in this instance Mike Freeman decided to do the right thing," said Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP. "Mike Freeman is fully aware that the grand jury process has been ineffective here and nationally in holding officers accountable. I believe sustained community pressure played a huge role in Mike Freeman's decision."
The grand jury process has been criticized in the wake of police-involved deaths around the United States that resulted in no indictments, including those of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. Last year, California became the first state to ban the use of grand juries in police shooting cases.
Legal experts say Freeman's rare move could reverberate across the country.
"He knows there is going to be other prosecutors that will disagree with his decision, but he is staking out a principle position," said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas and former federal prosecutor. "Freeman is a national legal leader and this move will have an impact beyond the boundaries of Minnesota."
Freeman said he was set to announce changes to the grand jury system in late November, but postponed the announcement after Clark was killed. His office was no longer going to accept deadly force cases directly from the police departments involved. He also wanted two veteran prosecutors to file analytical evidence reports after the grand jury made its decision — one based on the evidence presented for indictment and the other for a "no bill."
"The law that applies to the facts is exactly the same whether the prosecutor makes a decision or the grand jury does," Freeman said Wednesday. "On the other hand, in our society, I believe accountability and transparency are critical concepts for a just and healthy democracy."
Freeman's announcement already caused the family of Michael Kirvelay, who was shot and killed by Columbia Heights police officers a week after Clark, to demand that Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo do away with a grand jury in the case.
'Evidence is evidence'
Clark, 24, a black man, was shot in the head during a scuffle with two white Minneapolis police officers. The shooting led to international attention to widespread local protests, and an 18-day encampment outside the police department's Fourth Precinct in north Minneapolis, near the site of the shooting.
The police union has said Clark had his hand on one of the officers' guns when he was shot. Activists say that's not true and that Clark was handcuffed at the time.
The officers, Mark Ringgenberg, 30, and Dustin Schwarze, 28, were placed on administrative leave but returned to police desk jobs in January. Fred Bruno, Schwarze's attorney, said Freeman's move was a surprising development that reverses decades of precedent. On the other hand, he said, Freeman is a real lawyer with a lifetime of real experience, "so I assume he has good reasons for proceeding in this fashion."
"I don't think it matters because evidence is evidence," said Bob Sicoli, Ringgenberg's attorney. "He will do a fair and professional job. I'm pretty confident they don't have the evidence to prosecute."
Minneapolis has asked the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to handle Clark's case. Federal authorities also are reviewing Clark's death and haven't given a deadline for when their investigation will be completed.
Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau, who has said little publicly since Clark's death Nov. 16, a day after he was shot, issued a two-sentence statement saying she respected that this was a challenging decision for Freeman to make. Police union head Lt. Bob Kroll called it "a very bold move."
"For right now I'm not worried, but what happens if an anti-police activist gets elected to county attorney?" Kroll said. "Does that mean that every officer involved in a shooting gets indicted?"
Clark family responds
Activists with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and the Twin Cities Coalition 4 Justice 4 Jamar started protesting immediately after his death, and for the past several weeks held weekly demonstrations at the government center called "Freeman Fridays." While most young activists have wanted the grand jury system scrapped in police shootings, longtime Minneapolis civil rights activist Ron Edwards continues to favor a grand jury procedure. He said grand juries give prosecutors an opportunity to see how witnesses will perform in a court setting and it becomes a way to determine their integrity and veracity. Now, he said, prosecutors will not hear their testimony under oath until a trial.
Mary Moriarty, Hennepin County's chief public defender, said it's become very easy for prosecutors to send police-involved shootings to a grand jury. And when a no bill is returned, a prosecutor can say independent citizens made the decision.
"We applaud Mike's decision for more accountability and less secrecy," she said. "It's what we expect of our elected officials."
Minnesota law doesn't require police shooting cases to go before a grand jury, although it's been standard protocol.
Clark's sister Sharice Burns said the decision against using a grand jury was "actually satisfying," but added that his family had tempered its enthusiasm given the uncertainty still surrounding his case. She said the family only wanted justice for Clark in the form of an indictment against the officer who shot him.
The Clarks' attorney, Albert Goins, said the family is weighing a civil suit at the conclusion of the state and federal investigations. Goins said he didn't believe that Freeman's announcement was politically motivated, following the ouster of prosecutors in Chicago and Cleveland who came under intense criticism for their handling of other high-profile police-involved shootings. Freeman's term expires in 2018.
In an interview with the Star Tribune. Clark's adoptive parents, James and Wilma Clark, said they were told about Freeman's decision earlier in the day. They remain distraught over their son's death, saying what happened to him should have never happened.
"[The police] could have done something different," Wilma Clark said. "He was shot in the face."
The Clarks, who are represented by the law firm of Meshbesher & Spence, plan no legal action at this time. They just want the truth to be told and "the whole state of Minnesota to know about it," James Clark said.
"If someone needs to be held accountable, I hope they are prosecuted," Wilma Clark said. "We aren't asking for any more or any less."
Staff writer Randy Furst contributed.