Amy Klobuchar is running for president on her record of bipartisan initiatives in the Senate and her years as the chief prosecutor in Hennepin County more than a decade ago.
But the national media spotlight on her time as Hennepin County Attorney has not always been flattering, with civil rights activists questioning the prosecution of a black teenager in a notorious Minneapolis child slaying and a series of 30 police-involved deaths without a single prosecution.
Both issues have put her on the defensive in an age of strained police relations in minority communities, particularly as she ramps up a national campaign and seeks the support of black voters in states like South Carolina, which holds a primary on Saturday.
This week, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman defended Klobuchar for the conviction of Myon Burrell in the 2002 killing of 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards, a case that has come under new scrutiny in an Associated Press investigation. Klobuchar herself has called for the case to be reviewed for new evidence.
On the campaign trail, Klobuchar also has been forced to address a system of handling police-involved deaths that generally left charging decisions up to grand juries rather than prosecutors — a system she no longer supports because of its lack of accountability.
Her defenders, however, point out that her handling of police officers involved in deadly encounters with civilians between 1999 and 2007 put her in the mainstream of county prosecutors of the time.
That was before the 2014 death of Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year-old black man whose fatal shooting at the hands of a Ferguson, Mo., police officer, allegedly in self-defense, helped fuel the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement. A grand jury later cleared the officer, as did the U.S. Department of Justice under President Barack Obama.
Klobuchar’s reliance on grand juries to make charging decisions in such cases, now sharply criticized by civil rights advocates over the process’ secrecy, also has been a tool that nearly every Minnesota county attorney used until only recently.
“I don’t think that it’s really fair criticism,” said Robert Bennett, a Minneapolis attorney who is among the country’s most prolific in securing settlements in police brutality cases. “I think had she been Hennepin County attorney in the latter period, she would have done the right thing. Generally, the county attorney wouldn’t have known to question the veracity of the investigations in the same way they know now.”
Bennett, who reached a $20 million settlement last year with Minneapolis over the 2017 police shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, blamed shoddy investigations and limited evidence for the dearth of criminal cases against police for many years.
“Really for that whole period, you didn’t have body-worn cameras. You didn’t have squad videos … you didn’t have cameras everywhere — all of which helps to turn the critical eye fairly on police conduct,” Bennett said of Klobuchar’s tenure as Hennepin County attorney.
Few incidents over that time sparked the widespread unrest that followed the 2015 Minneapolis police shooting of Jamar Clark, which prompted Freeman, Klobuchar’s successor, to do away with the grand jury process for police shootings in lieu of making charging decisions himself.
Still, deadly police encounters in Hennepin County during Klobuchar’s tenure included the 2001 killing of Efrain Pompa De Paz, 21, who was shot by police after a car chase when officers thought he reached under the front seat for a weapon. None was found.
In 2002, Christopher Burns, 44, died while being restrained with a neck hold after police were summoned to a dispute between Burns and his fiancée. The incident sparked protests outside Klobuchar’s office.
Police responding to a shots-fired call in 2004 gave chase to 15-year-old Courtney Williams and shot him after he allegedly refused commands to stop and appeared to be reaching for something in his waistband. Police found a pellet gun near his body.
Toward the end of Klobuchar’s tenure, Minneapolis police shot unarmed Dominic Felder, 27, after his girlfriend called 911 for help getting him to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. Police thought he had a weapon, and they opened fire when he allegedly reached for his waistband. The city eventually paid more than $2 million to Felder’s family.
Though common at the time, the use of grand juries to review officer-involved shootings still attracted protests in Hennepin County while Klobuchar was in office.
“Even though things might have been widespread at a certain particular time doesn’t make them right,” said Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality. “And it doesn’t mean that people weren’t raising those issues, even back then. In fact, we were raising them. We had multiple protests at her office. I should tell you that she never met with us. Not a single time.”
Current and former prosecutors say the process of empaneling a grand jury is intended to extract community input for important decisions in the criminal justice system. But critics point out that the process can be perceived as shielding elected county attorneys from difficult choices and that it is too one-sided because only the prosecution can present evidence.
“I think Amy was following what was the traditional thing to do at the time,” said Bob Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association and a former first assistant U.S. attorney in Minnesota. “I think that she utilized the grand jury the way most Minnesota prosecutors were using the grand jury at that time. … I think she did all the things that were proper given the time.”
The nationwide protests that followed the police shootings of Brown in Ferguson and Clark in Minneapolis are credited by some as a turning point in how county prosecutors approach police shootings.
“I think there’s a growing realization in the law enforcement community that police [can] do bad things,” said former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson. “You have Ferguson, you have Baltimore, you have Philando Castile [in Ramsey County]. … And prosecutors, I think, are starting to say that maybe a grand jury is not the best.”
Since launching her bid for president last year, Klobuchar has repeatedly said that there is “systemic racism in our criminal justice system.” At a recent candidate forum in Iowa, she also acknowledged that her thinking on grand juries has changed over time. “I actually no longer think that that’s the right way to do it. I think you should take personal responsibility,” she said. “Some of that came out of a case in Minnesota, the Philando Castile case that came after my time. And that was prosecuted by the Ramsey County attorney, a friend of mine, John Choi, and he did put everything into that case. Unfortunately, the jury came back not guilty. But there’s an example of prosecutors have to take responsibility for the cases in front of them and make the decisions on the hard calls.”