The commentary "Stop turning to grand juries when cops kill" (Feb. 11) is the latest example in a steady drumbeat of criticism for the use of a grand jury to consider charges against the police officers involved in the death of Jamar Clark. Alas, the article's assertions are deeply flawed.
Is the "shockingly low" rate of indictments against police officers involved in the use of deadly force a bad outcome, as the writers claim? I suggest the reverse would be worse. Let's look at what's happened here in Minnesota — in the 60 Minnesota cases referred to by the authors. The short summaries Minnesota Public Radio provided for each case allows only a few simple observations.
As far as one can could tell, only 22 of those incidents were presented to a grand jury; the rest were handled by the local county attorney. In the metro area, many of the cases were given to another county for investigation and grand jury action. All 60 of the cases resulted in a declaration that the officers acted within the legal scope of their duties. There were three cases where families of the slain person took civil court action claiming wrongful death. None of those suits has so far been successful; although out-of-court cash payments have been granted in a couple of other cases.
The police officers involved in those 60 deaths were shot or shot at, dragged, rammed, stabbed, set afire, and attacked or threatened with knives and a sword. They were involved in homicide scenes where the killer was armed and firing. The difficult task of determining whether officers' actions constitute a crime is left to people who were not there and who have to rely on often-conflicting evidence. Nevertheless, the record in those 60 cases reveals very little evidence of egregious conduct by the officers. It's hard to condemn an officer for shooting when someone is trying to run him over with an SUV.
However, the protocol whenever an officer uses deadly force is to initiate an investigation by the county attorney to determine whether the action was justified. The authors assert that there is a natural cozy relationship between the county attorney and the police that dampens the zeal of the attorney to prosecute any officer. They offer no evidence except the statistic that almost no officers are prosecuted, which, as we've seen, is spurious.
In the Jamar Clark case, the Hennepin County attorney has turned to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to do the investigation. There has been no announcement yet of a grand jury session to consider the case. Of the cases in the MPR report that occurred in Hennepin County, most were turned over to other counties for investigation and grand jury proceedings. It's still likely that could happen with the Clark case.
I have served as a jury member and foreman, so I've been in the room and have taken part in the process. A grand jury usually has 23 members; 16 are required to be present before it can convene. It takes a minimum of 12 jurors to concur before returning an indictment. The jury is drawn by the District Court "from a list composed of persons selected at random from a fair cross-section of the statutorily qualified residents of the county."
The grand jury serves for a year, which can be quite a burden if there are many cases. The overarching task of the grand jury is twofold: determine whether a crime has been committed and whether there is sufficient evidence to believe the defendant committed it.
Unlike trial jurors, grand jury members are actively involved in the case. They can ask questions of both prosecutors and witnesses. Those with whom I served were keenly interested in each case and actively participated. We certainly weren't "rubber stamps," as the authors assert. The answers are not as easily determined as it appears on TV.
If our police are blazing away at the innocent, our prosecutors are slavishly protecting them, and our jury system is indolent — then we are doomed from the start. Fortunately, here in Minnesota, the opposite is true. Our police officers, under enormous pressure and great risk, are largely professionally behaved. Our elected legal officials and their staffs discharge their tasks effectively and without public adulation. Citizens chosen for jury duty serve faithfully despite low pay and burdensome schedules. Our protesters can gather and make their point.
It's a little messy, but we are all generally well-served.
David McCauley, of Coon Rapids, is a former Anoka County commissioner.