Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman did something rather brave last week. He ditched the grand jury in the case of Jamar Clark’s November shooting death by a Minneapolis cop.
In the weeks prior to Freeman's decision that “grand juries should no longer be used in police shooting cases in Hennepin County,” protesters stormed his offices with all sorts of complaints about the use of grand juries in police shootings.
The jurors are anonymous. The evidence and how it’s presented is secretive. While prosecutors are able to convince grand juries to indict average people accused of murder nearly 100 percent of the time, cops are an exception. Grand juries generally choose not to bring charges against officers. The difference is especially difficult to understand since grand jury decisions never have to be explained.
In short: Freeman was convinced this lack of transparency is an incontestable reason why they shouldn’t be used in cop shootings.
That means he's accepting the lose-lose responsibility of whether to bring charges in the Clark shooting all to himself. And he deserves a pat on the back for that.
Freeman hasn't actually decided whether to prosecute the cops. And since police have released virtualy no information on the case, the public doesn't have enough information to even speculate what charges he could bring. The partial videos that supposedly captured what happened that night are in Freeman's hands, and he hasn't released them despite fierce public interest and public unrest.
Freeman's next steps are critical – not only to justice but to his own job security. In the wake of high profile police shootings of black people across the country, prosecutors are getting fired left and right.
The night before Freeman said there would be no grand jury in Clark's case, veteran Chicago prosecutor Anita Alvarez suffered a landslide loss in the Illinois primary.
The two-term incumbent was doomed after waiting more than a year to charge the officer who killed Laquan McDonald with 15 bullets — and kept shooting while McDonald was on the ground. When 22-year-old Rekia Boyd was killed by a cop in 2012, Alvarez waited two years to file charges.
In Cleveland, voters also ousted district attorney Tim McGinty, who refused to prosecute the cops who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he played in a park with a toy gun. McGinty declined to publicize the information presented to the grand jury, even after the fact.
Still, prosecutors who do choose to charge aren't safe from blowback.
Freeman's decision last week to give the grand jury a rest was the right thing to do. He now needs to follow that moral compass to the end of the case.