On July 8, the Cleveland 8, a group of clergy and activists, released a video and open letter criticizing the abuse of the Grand Jury process in the Tamir Rice case.
Tamir Rice was 12 years old when he was killed by Cleveland Police Officer Timothy Loehmann in November 2014. He had been playing with a toy gun in a park near his home. Both Loehmann and his partner, who was present when Rice was killed, are both still on the job and have not been charged with a crime.
Last month the Cleveland 8 filed citizen’s affidavits asking a judge to find probable cause to arrest Loehmann. It took Judge Ronald Adrine two days to find that indeed, there is probable cause to arrest Loehmann for murder, and his partner, Frank Garmback for dereliction of duty. But he refused to issue an arrest warrant, deferring to the Prosecutor’s office.
In their letter, the group of activists and clergy condemn the prosecutor’s office for ignoring the judge’s finding of probable cause for arrest, deciding to rely on a grand jury process instead. “It is not the grand jury’s role to file the initial charges,” the letter points out. “For the vast majority of people, charges have already been filed against them prior to a prosecutor seeking an indictment before the grand jury”.
In general, a grand jury is presented with evidence from the prosecutor in order to decide whether enough evidence exists to indict. But in this case, the defendants will be permitted to present their side of the story, causing the proceeding to resemble a “secret trial,” according to the letter. “The idea that rules of the grand jury can be altered at will depending on who is suspected of committing a crime is itself unconstitutional and discriminatory against every other individual subject to the grand jury but without the apparent entitlements that come with wearing a badge,” the letter states.
“We are working to ensure procedural justice is not derailed as we saw with the abuse of the grand jury process in Ferguson and Staten Island,” said Julia Shearson, member of the Cleveland 8. “This open letter makes clear that we will not stand for a two-tier system of justice whereby the police are given special treatment denied to ordinary people in the grand jury system.
“The People Will Not Stand for Less than Equal Justice: Open Letter from the Cleveland 8”
Reform of the criminal justice system cannot solely focus on transforming law enforcement. It also must ensure that procedural justice – the fair evaluation and administration of legal procedures, the decision-making process, and quality of treatment – is upheld to avoid both the appearance and the existence of partiality.
On Tuesday, June 9, we, a group of activists and clergy here in the City of Cleveland, in accordance with the Ohio Revised Code, filed citizen affidavits calling for the charging and arrest of two officers in the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. In a letter dated June 18, we called upon the Cleveland Law Department to uphold the law and Judge Ronald Adrine’s findings of probable cause by issuing warrants for the arrests of officers Frank Garmback and Timothy Loehmann.
The City of Cleveland law director Barbara Langhenry and Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty have said that they support reform, yet their inaction on this issue sends a signal to the people that they are not upholding the very laws they want the people to respect.
Following the probable cause findings, the county prosecutor continues to state that he will bring the matter before a grand jury and leave it to them to decide whether there is enough evidence against these officers to bring indictments.
The actions by chief law enforcement officials in the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County are clear examples of abuse of discretion and the unequal administration of law that breeds distrust in our criminal justice system.
First, the decision to not issue warrants for the arrests exhibits an arbitrary and selective application of the law. By ignoring the law, the state is acting contrary to the interests of the people. While Judge Adrine’s findings were not acted upon with regard to arrest warrants for Garmback and Loehmann, his and other judges’ consideration is regularly sought and acted upon against private citizens as we see with search warrants. This is unacceptable.
Second, the county prosecutor’s approach of using the grand jury as a forum to determine whether charges will be filed in the Tamir Rice case is not only another example of disregard of the judiciary, but also an unequal application of the grand jury process. We are not trying to circumvent the grand jury process for Garmback and Loehmann. However, a step is being bypassed. It is not the grand jury’s role to file the initial charges. For the vast majority of people, charges have already been filed against them prior to a prosecutor seeking an indictment before the grand jury.
When the prosecutor uses the grand jury as a body to determine probable cause for chargingand indicting, it is problematic in two ways: (1) It gives police officers the opportunity to provide exculpatory (exonerating) testimony without cross examination, as took place in the Michael Brown case in Ferguson and the Eric Garner case in Staten Island. This approach suggests a‘secret trial’ out of public view, which, while serving the interests of the officers, does not serve the interests of justice. (2) The idea that rules of the grand jury can be altered at will depending on who is suspected of committing a crime is itself unconstitutional and discriminatory against every other individual subject to the grand jury but without the apparent entitlements that come with wearing a badge.
Thirdly, the fact that the county prosecutor has stated he needs to conduct his own investigation raises the question of what else is required to file charges and whether he deems police officers as a special class exempt from being subject to normal criminal procedures. Here is the evidence the county prosecutor already has in his possession: (1) a video of Tamir Rice being killed at close range in less than 2 seconds and being left for more than 4 minutes without any first aid; (2) a detailed report by the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s department resulting from a five-month investigation; and (3) a finding of probable cause by a respected judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court with more than 30 years on the bench. The county prosecutor may have his own rationale for proceeding in this manner. However, regardless of his reasons, none would truly seem fair or equitable considering that the ordinary resident or citizen is not granted such deference.
If we as a community and a nation are going to truly transform our criminal justice system, the public must see the system as legitimate and trust that elected and appointed officials will abide by the law and apply it equally throughout the legal process. This goes not only for police officers, but also for judges, law directors, and prosecutors. We the people should not, and must not, stand for anything less.
The Cleveland 8
Rev. Dr. Jawanza Colvin
Rev. Dr. R. A. Vernon
Dr. Rhonda Y. Williams
Julia A. Shearson