Ramsey County Attorney John Choi is adding a veteran attorney with St. Paul roots to his office to review evidence in the death of Philando Castile, a move that has been both criticized and praised by activists and attorneys.
The decision to temporarily add Don Lewis as a special prosecutor is a compromise between Choi’s desire to remain involved in the case and demands by the Castile family’s attorney, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others that he completely turn over the case to a special prosecutor.
Lewis will be “integral” in reviewing the investigation, said Choi, who has not decided whether he will present the case to a grand jury or decide himself whether the police officer who killed Castile on July 6 should be criminally charged.
Choi said he cannot completely defer the case to a special prosecutor, which the Minneapolis NAACP and more than 6,000 people who have signed an online petition are urging him to do.
“I understand that there is distrust of the system and some may question the ability of a prosecutor to hold police accountable when we rely on them to present cases to our office,” Choi said. “However, if I handed this case off to any other person outside of the duties and authority of my office I would not only be abdicating my responsibility but potentially creating additional mistrust.”
However, he said Lewis is an independent special prosecutor without law enforcement interests and will provide “transparency and confidence for the public.”
The Minneapolis NAACP criticized the gesture for letting Choi “have it both ways.”
“Because county attorneys in Minnesota work closely with local police to prosecute cases, there is an unavoidable conflict of interest in having them also investigate incidents when police kill the civilians they swore to serve and protect,” said an NAACP statement. “This is a criticism of the system, not of Mr. Choi personally.”
Lewis, who is black, is a shareholder at the Minneapolis law firm Nilan Johnson Lewis. He has extensive criminal and civil experience.
“My hope — whatever the outcome — is that my work with John’s office will earn the trust and confidence of the residents of Ramsey County and the state of Minnesota, and especially the trust and confidence of those who today expect the least and fear the worst from our criminal justice system,” Lewis said.
But Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds said Lewis has a “poor” track record of holding authorities accountable.
She cited his exoneration in 2015 of two white Minneapolis police officers in the arrest of prominent black activist Al Flowers, and his 2014 finding that the city of St. Paul could not have predicted that erosion in Lilydale Regional Park was a threat to visitors’ safety. (An unrelated 2009 study had urged city officials to rectify erosion issues.) Lewis was hired to investigate a 2013 landslide that killed two children at the park.
“I feel that the Ramsey County attorney made a mistake in appointing attorney Don Lewis as a special prosecutor in this case,” Levy-Pounds said. “He has not inspired trust and confidence in the justice system, and his appointment to the team will not inspire trust and confidence.”
Glenda Hatchett, who is representing Castile’s mother, was warm to Choi’s arrangement even though she had written Choi, Gov. Mark Dayton and Attorney General Lori Swanson on July 18 calling for an independent investigation.
“Attorney Lewis has an outstanding background in both the public and private sector,” Hatchett said. “I do think that this is a good middle ground on this matter.”
Attorney Larry Rogers Jr., who is representing Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, called the arrangement “odd” and said he’s still calling for an independent federal investigation into the shooting.
“What are we waiting for?” Rogers said. “If it were you or I or any other citizen, charges would have been filed by now.”
Rogers said that despite the lack of an independent review, he and Reynolds have “faith and confidence that the system will be just.”
Asked how Lewis’ role in the Flowers case would affect the public’s trust in his involvement in the Castile case, Choi said that Lewis has “significant experience” that will bolster the review process.
“At the end of the day, I think when people are thinking about [the Castile] case, a lot of people in the public have already jumped to a conclusion,” Choi said. “And I know that there’s a lot of angst about ultimately that [investigation’s] outcome. But in the system of justice, the process is equally important — about how you arrive at these decisions to ensure that the fact-finding that is conducted is done in a fair and impartial way and is done thoroughly.”
Lewis said the facts of the Flowers case didn’t reach the severity of the Castile case. He said that although he has represented the government, he has also represented clients who were adversarial to the government or police.
“Frankly,” Lewis said, “the values and assets I bring to this exercise is having experienced and provided legal services in a wide variety of contexts for a wide variety of clients.
“I work very hard … to assess each and every case on the unique facts presented by that case.”
Lewis will be paid $295 an hour and any paralegal or staff in his office will be paid $175 an hour for work on the case.
Levy-Pounds said that in addition to the Flowers and Lilydale cases, she is concerned about Lewis’ oversight of the firing of a black, female law professor from Hamline who had criticized St. Paul police. The firing coincided with the professor’s 2011 conviction on four gross-misdemeanor counts of failing to file a tax return.
“I think that it’s tricky, in these situations, to find the model that works best,” Levy-Pounds said. “The reality right now is that many of us do not trust in the system. There needs to be some statewide oversight and accountability in these cases.”
No timeline certain
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) is investigating the shooting of Castile, and it is uncertain when the investigation will be completed.
Choi said the investigation into the November 2015 shooting of Jamar Clark by Minneapolis police took about 4½ months to complete, with the BCA investigation spanning 13 weeks and the Hennepin County attorney’s office probe lasting seven weeks.
When the BCA investigation is complete, it will be forwarded to Choi’s office for possible criminal charges against the St. Anthony police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, who killed Castile, 32, during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights.
Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter were in the car at the time. Reynolds broadcast the shooting’s aftermath live on Facebook.
Choi has previously said there are benefits to a grand jury, but he said Friday that he hasn’t decided what route he’ll take in the Castile case.
Last March, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman broke from the long-standing use of a grand jury in officer-involved shootings by reviewing the Clark case himself.
Activists seeking transparency pushed him to forgo the grand jury proceeding, which is private.
Freeman decided not to charge the two officers in that case.
Authorities’ handling of such cases has changed dramatically in recent years as activists across the nation protest police use of force against people of color, particularly black men.
Choi, Freeman and St. Paul police took unprecedented steps earlier this year to publicly release photographic, video and audio evidence collected in officer-involved shootings in attempts to engender public trust.
The data release came after a Ramsey County grand jury declined to press charges in the fatal shooting of Philip Quinn, and after Freeman’s decision in the Clark case.
It’s unclear whether Choi’s unusual decision to add Lewis will be adopted in future cases.
“We feel the addition of a special prosecutor to assist our office in this important decision is not only the appropriate thing to do in this case, it is the right thing to do,” Choi said. “I view this as a case-by-case decision, thus do not feel it sets any precedent going forward other than to say that we should always be open to new ideas as the interests of justice may require.”