No Grand Jury, Redux

It has now been nearly two months since Philando Castile was killed near the State Fair grounds by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds livestreamed the immediate aftermath of the shooting and described how Castile had just told Yanez he had a legally registered gun and how Castile was reaching for his ID, as ordered, when Yanez shot him. This Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit demanding the public release of squad car dashcam video covering the Castile traffic stop, which the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is withholding while it continues to investigate. As record numbers of Minnesotans enjoy the State Fair mere blocks from where Castile died, this week his family is bringing his body back to St. Louis, where he was born. His mother says she “brought him here to Minnesota to better his life… but unfortunately he was murdered by St. Anthony Police and this is the last part of the ordeal.”

Police in Minnesota have killed at least 150 people since 2000 with zero criminal indictments (let alone convictions), even as many millions of dollars have been paid out in civil settlements. While people of color are 16 percent of the state population, they comprise 45 percent of police-involved deaths. St. Anthony police records show that they disproportionately stop and arrest black citizens. Castile experienced years of harassment and racial profiling, including on the night of his death when police scanner audio reveals he was pulled over for supposedly looking similar to a robbery suspect “because of the wide-set nose.” Across the country, we know that black people of all genders may be treated as more threatening due to bias: for example, in 2015 unarmed black men were twice as likely as unarmed white men to be shot and killed by police, after accounting for all other relevant factors. To echo Governor Dayton, would Castile have been shot if he had been white?

Grand juries return indictments in nearly all cases they are presented by prosecutors, but almost never indict when police kill the citizens they swore to serve and protect. Across Minnesota, the County Attorneys who are responsible for selecting and presenting the evidence a grand jury considers in police killings also rely extensively on police cooperation and assistance in almost every aspect of prosecuting their other cases, which represents an unavoidable conflict of interest. Now Ramsey County Attorney John Choi must decide whether to use a grand jury in the Castile case. Ramsey County includes St. Paul, and over the last seven years the St. Paul police department has used deadly force more often than any other law enforcement agency in the entire state, disproportionately killing people of color – all without facing any criminal consequences. Last December, Phil Quinn was killed while experiencing an episode of mental illness and holding a screwdriver, and Choi announced this February that a grand jury had (predictably) declined to indict the shooting officer.

After Jamar Clark was shot in Minneapolis last November, activists demanded an end to the practice of grand juries rubber-stamping police killings as justified. Protesters peacefully occupied the Fourth Precinct and marched to city hall, and thousands signed a petition for no grand jury. As Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds put it, “We do not trust the system to produce justice.” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman listened to the voices of activists and announced this March that he would no longer use grand juries in police shootings. Freeman explained his decision: “Others dislike the grand jury process because under law and practice, its proceedings are essentially private and the basis for the grand jury’s decision is confidential… Secrecy, lack of transparency and no direct accountability strikes us as very problematic in a democratic society… I concluded that the accountability and transparency limitations of a grand jury are too high a hurdle to overcome.” The same concerns that caused Freeman to forgo grand juries in police shootings should lead Choi to do likewise.

Declining to use a grand jury in the Castile case would not be enough. Even when County Attorneys take the responsibility for making charging decisions rather than using a grand jury, as Freeman did, there remains an inherent conflict of interest due to their working relationship with police. A state-level independent and unbiased special prosecutor should ideally handle all police shootings, but this common sense reform is not practiced in Minnesota. County Attorney Choi’s addition of Don Lewis as a so-called “special prosecutor” to his team does not actually cede any of his authority, and in addition Lewis has a troubling history of favoring those in power.

If Choi bypasses the grand jury while retaining control over the case, he must fulfill his obligation to thoroughly and impartially consider all the available evidence when deciding whether probable cause exists to charge Yanez. Here Choi must do better than Freeman. In personally declining to charge the officers who shot Jamar Clark, Freeman disregarded the testimony of numerous black witnesses, misrepresented the significance of DNA and other forensic evidence, falsely characterized Clark’s relationship with Rayann Hayes and behavior that night, and uncritically parroted a constructed and dubious police narrative. Choi and Freeman both have an obligation under their office to seek justice for the victims of violence, including violence committed by the police with whom they work so closely. Freeman chose to shield the officers who killed Clark from criminal accountability for their actions, and now we will see whether Choi will deliver justice for Philando.

Hundreds of community members will be meeting Saturday at 11:00 where Philando was killed, on Larpenteur and Fry, to honor him and other victims of police brutality. Philando Castile deserves justice and we who believe in freedom will not rest until it comes.