California Moves to End Use of Grand Juries in Police Shooting Cases, But Will Prosecutors Fare Better?
Before he left office, one of former Attorney General Eric Holder’s goals was to try to dismantle the legal changes brought about by the War on Drugs. As a former judge, Holder had seen how mandatory minimum sentences had led to the mass incarceration of Black men.
However, it seems that if there is going to be change, it’s going to be from within the legal community. Like Holder, other judges are beginning to realize how much damage the War on Drugs has had on the Black community. Former federal judge Nancy Gertner compares the War on Drugs to the carpet bombing of European cities during World War II.
“This is a war that I saw destroy lives,” she said. “It eliminated a generation of African-American men, covered our racism in ostensibly neutral guidelines and mandatory minimums … and created an intergenerational problem — although I wasn’t on the bench long enough to see this, we know that the sons and daughters of the people we sentenced are in trouble, and are in trouble with the criminal justice system.”
However, there seems to be a movement in some states to amend laws that some see as unjust. California recently passed a law that would ban secret grand juries when deciding to charge officers who use deadly force. According to Mother Jones, the bill was motivated by widespread protests against the grand juries that decided not to prosecute police in Ferguson and New York, who were involved in fatalities. The law, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, also protects a citizen’s right to record police.
“The use of the criminal grand jury process, and the refusal to indict as occurred in Ferguson and other communities of color, has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise our justice system,” state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), who authored the bill.
Protests against secret grand jury decisions are having their effect on prosecutors across the country. St. Louis County District Attorney Bob McCulloch decided to release grand jury documents to end accusations he was sympathetic to Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
In New York, the ACLU is fighting to release court documents from the grand jury that failed to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo who was involved with the death of Eric Garner.
“When a grand jury makes a decision about whether or not to indict an officer in the killing of a New Yorker, the public has a right to know why,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “There is a deep and well-founded suspicion of the criminal justice system partly because no one has been accountable for the death of Eric Garner and the community doesn’t know why.”
However, openness only works when prosecutors are brave enough to go against the grain, like Baltimore’s chief prosecutor Marilyn Mosby. The young prosecutor shocked the nation when she decided to indict six Baltimore officers for the death of Freddie Gray.
One of the problems is prosecutors often work and socialize with police officers, who may expect to be protected when they break the law. Mosby and McCulloch are both from police families.
Police organizations didn’t respond too kindly to Mosby’s decision to prosecute the officers. Gene Ryan, a police union leader, called Mosby out in a letter accusing her of having conflicts of interest that wouldn’t allow her to conduct the case. There was also a veiled threat to Mosby’s husband, a member of the Baltimore City Council. The letter also said Nick Mosby’s political career “will be directly impacted, for better or worse, by the outcome of your investigation.”