Prosecutor: No grand jury in Jamar Clark police shooting case

This undated photo released by his sister Javille Burns shows Jamar Clark.  Javille Burns via AP 2015
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    March 16, 2016

Updated 4:30 p.m. | Posted 11:13 a.m.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said Wednesday his office — not a grand jury — will make the final call on whether to press charges against Minneapolis police officers in the Nov. 15 shooting of Jamar Clark.

Freeman stressed that no decision has been made yet on any charges in the shooting, which ignited widespread protests and set north Minneapolis on edge for weeks.

Still, Freeman’s move is a victory for protesters who believed a grand jury would be less likely to charge officers in the shooting.

Freeman told reporters that he’d wrestled with the decision but decided that “the accountability and transparency limitations of a grand jury are too high a hurdle to overcome. I will make the factual determination whether there is sufficient evidence to support a criminal charge against police officers in the tragic death of Jamar Clark.”

He also said he would no longer send police-involved shooting cases to grand juries, something Hennepin County prosecutors have done for decades.

Clark, 24, was shot by a Minneapolis officer during a confrontation in north Minneapolis after officers reportedly tried to stop him from interfering with a paramedic crew treating his girlfriend outside a late-night birthday party.

• Read: Freeman’s statement
• Full coverage: The Jamar Clark shooting, protests
• Conflicting accounts: What happened the night Jamar Clark was shot?
• Timeline: The Jamar Clark shooting, aftermath
• Tell MPR: Did Freeman make the right decision?

Witnesses said the man was handcuffed when he was shot. The head of the Minneapolis police union later said Clark was not handcuffed and was shot while going for an officer’s gun.

The conflicting accounts in the shooting’s aftermath rocked the Twin Cities for weeks, reopening racial tensions between police and African-Americans.

Protesters have demanded the officers be prosecuted for shooting Clark and that authorities release all video of the incident collected by investigators.

Hundreds of Black Lives Matter demonstrators and supporters occupy the street in front of the federal building, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, in Minneapolis, after marching from the Police Department’s Fourth Precinct. Jim Mone | AP 2015

Minneapolis officials asked the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to probe the incident and also called on the United States Justice Department to review the case for any civil rights violations.

The BCA finished its investigation a few weeks ago, although Freeman asked for some additional work.

Freeman could have sent the case to a grand jury for review, which is a typical move in cases involving possible charges against police over use of force. Protesters, however, fought that, believing that a grand jury would be less likely to charge the officers.

Freeman has said a final decision is expected by the end of March on whether to charge the officers in the shooting.

Minnesota law requires grand jury be convened in cases of first-degree pre-meditated homicide and other serious crimes with the potential to bring a life sentence. Otherwise, the choice is left to county attorneys.

While cases that use a grand jury are prosecuted in public, critics say the decision-making by a grand jury to indict or not indict isn’t transparent enough.

Freeman said that he began nearly a year and a half ago to examine the use of grand juries in police shootings and that he’d been developing a “hybrid grand jury system” that was more transparent. He said he planned to announce a new system just after last Thanksgiving, but after the Nov. 15 Clark shooting “it seemed inappropriate” to talk about overhauling the system.

The decision not to send the Clark case to a grand jury was a surprise but “exactly the right thing,” said Brad Colbert, an adjunct law professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

Grand juries were meant to be used infrequently but in some places prosecutors have used the process for political cover, tossing hard decisions to a grand jury, Colbert added. Freeman, he said, “is going to be accountable for whether there are charges brought.”

Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau noted that “the legal standards and thresholds remain the same, whether this case is looked at by a grand jury or reviewed by the county attorney.”

Mica Grimm, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis who led public demonstrations in the weeks following the Clark shooting, also praised Freeman’s decision.

Grand juries around the country rarely indict officers involved in shootings, she said. Freeman’s move, she added, shows he’s listening to his constituents.

“It’s a great first step to getting justice for Jamar,” Grimm told MPR News.

Asked whether she’d feel the same way if Freeman decides not to charge the officers involved, Grimm said, “If that’s the case then at least we have the opportunity for transparency … rather than in grand juries where it’s locked up and we have no idea.”

Black Lives Matter Minneapolis organizer Miski Noor said it will be fairer for Freeman to make the decision about charges in Clark’s case.

“We’re excited that this is going to be an open process that the public can be a part of, because when we know when the public is involved, there’s a higher level of accountability,” Noor said.

Freeman’s decision not to convene grand juries for any future police shootings is also a victory for civil rights groups and activists who have pressured Freeman on the issue since Clark’s death, Noor added.

“It’s been a lot of people sitting down with Mike Freeman,” she said, “holding actions at his office, repeatedly letting him know that the grand jury system continuously fails people of color and black people.”

The decision drew some disapproval.

Minneapolis police union president Lt. Bob Kroll called Freeman’s decision a bold move,  but added that he remains confident the facts are on the side of the officers and they’ll ultimately be exonerated, as they would have by a grand jury.

Kroll said he believes critics of the process will remain unsatisfied whatever happens.

“Will they say, ‘OK, we’ve gotten what we wanted. We’ve got an outside investigation. We’ve got no grand jury. And here’s the facts, and the facts are the facts,'” he asked. “Will they come forward and say the officers’ actions were lawful and proper and we’re sorry for all the disruptions in the time being? I don’t think that’ll be the case.”

State Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said he thought Freeman’s decision a bad idea and would oppose any change in law. A retired cop who chairs the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, Cornish said prosecutors could be subject to lobbying or sentiment outside the legal system in police cases.

He said it’s fairer to have more people weighing such matters, like a grand jury.

MPR News reporters Tim Nelson and Jon Collins contributed to this report.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    I’m interested to hear from a lawyer on this and how it relates to the equal protection clause, and if routing criminal cases based on someone’s employer is an issue there.

    • Ryan Johnson

      You mean like, the legal differences between a government employ shooting someone as opposed to where the shooter was privately employed?

      • kevinfromminneapolis

        No, choosing whether or not to use a grand jury based on the employer of the alleged shooter.

        • Dan

          The “choosing … based on a the employer of the shooter” part is not changing. The choice is changing.

          • kevinfromminneapolis

            makes sense thx

    • Neil

      The prosecutor always has discretion to charge without a grand jury. Happens all the time.

      • kevinfromminneapolis

        Thanks.

        • Neil

          Ideally, I think, this would be taken from the county prosecutor all together. I’m guessing, but I would think that initially they sent these cases to grand juries in the interest of transparency. There is still a conflict of interest with county prosecutor both needing to work with the police and having to charge them when needed. Unfortunately, the grand jury process came to be used to avoid accountability in these cases.

          This is a step in the right direction, but broader reform is still needed. (Note: prosecutors in Chicago and Cleveland both lost to challengers last night.)

    • Char Char Binks

      Who cares about all that, if the cops are white?

  • crystals

    I respect this decision tremendously.

  • Carl Crabkiller

    Big switcharoo for Mr. Freeman whose office has failed to find anything amiss with police conduct over the last 25 years. More amazing when one considers the staggering amounts paid out by local governments in civil cases. Tycel Nelson , Terrence Franklin, Metro Gang Task Force, come to mind, I think there are a lot more cases he dodged. The investigative system needs change, I don’t trust the police to investigate themselves anymore.

    • Neil

      It hasn’t been his office that whole time.

      He made the right decision here, which shows you what an engaged populace can accomplish. And shows the ability to be persuaded on his part, which is something we want in our leaders.

      • BJ

        Yeah, 8 of last 25 he wasn’t, he was 1991–1999 and 2007 to today.

        >He made the right decision here

        He didn’t make any decision that he didn’t already do in 80% of the cases he gets.

      • Char Char Binks

        When HASN’T mob rule turned out well?

  • Gail13

    Excellent news! Now we need to abolish the Grand Jury system altogether.

    • NoCountryForOldCountryBuffet

      Why? We barely use it in Minnesota anyway. And for federal prosecutions it’s mandated by the constitution. You’re better off worrying about things that matter.

      • crystals

        I’d like to give you a standing ovation for your username.

  • Kurt O

    I’m curious about Miski Noor’s comments about repeatedly “holding actions” at Mike Freeman’s office. It sounds like they badgered him to prevent having a grand jury.

    • kevinfromminneapolis

      Which sounds a lot like what Tony C is concerned about.

      • BJ

        But wasn’t this always the case, Mike Freeman or any county attorney, always had the option of just pressing charges. Grand Jury was,always, just an option.

        • kevinfromminneapolis

          Right but it seems to have escalated now. That should give us pause.

    • Neil

      One person’s badgering is another’s petitioning for a redress of grievances, it seems.

  • ptoadstool

    Cornish does have a point, but I think Freeman will do his best to be fair and aboveboard.

    • BJ

      What about the next county attorney?

      • ptoadstool

        No guarantees, which is why we have grand juries.

  • Mick O’Kelley

    Gee — wonder why no charges?

    Ummmm…ya. Try to take a cop’s gun? Often, you end up dead. Black people in this country are under some kind of mass hypnosis. DON’T resist arrest and/or attack cops. Your chances of getting shot go way down. Those who want respect — GIVE respect.

    “They told him (Jamar) to take his hands out of his pockets,” Freeman said. “He refused.”

    The Hennepin County Attorney went on to explain at a press conference
    that that’s when Ringgenberg drew his weapon, then put it back in its
    holster and grabbed Clark’s wrist. Ringgenberg’s partner, Schwarze, then
    tried but failed to handcuff Clark and dropped the cuffs. That’s when
    Ringgenberg can be seen toppling an unarmed Clark to the ground.

    The scuffle became a life-and-death struggle.

    “Ringgenberg says he reached back to the gun and felt Clark’s whole
    hand on the gun,” Freeman said. “Ringgenberg repeatedly told Schwarze
    he’s got my gun.”

    In a statement, Schwarze told Clark, “I’m going to shoot you if you
    don’t let go of the gun.” Clark said, “I’m ready to die,” according to
    that statement.

    • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

      And here we are back missing a much bigger picture.

      • Mick O’Kelley

        Exactly.

        One could fill the Staples Center in LA with what’s left out of the story.

        I’ve only seen one case — ONE — where it looked to me like the Cop was totally in the wrong. Even then, the initial stop, in South Carolina, started cordially enough.

        The suspect ran from the police — if you can call it running — and was shot in the back. I will still wait for the trial, but I really can’t see a justification right now.

        In every other case? My god. You wrestle with cops in the streets? Sooner or later, something really bad is going to happen.

        You think you were arrested wrongfully? Shop it to the ACLU. They love that stuff, and would take the case for free. These types — not all black people but these violent types — HAVE to learn. You can’t answer life’s challenges with your fists.

        Worse than that though is those who purposely lie — whether outright falsehoods or lying by omission — to get the masses stirred up for a political agenda. There must be a charge for these people. They must be called to account!