Legal experts keep close eye on Clark case: Some say Black Lives Matter helped bring transparency to process
MINNEAPOLIS -- Legal experts watched the decision in the Jamar Clark case with interest, some saying they supported Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman's handling of the process.Freeman announced earlier this month that he would not be calling ...
MINNEAPOLIS - Legal experts watched the decision in the Jamar Clark case with interest, some saying they supported Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s handling of the process.
Freeman announced earlier this month that he would not be calling a grand jury to decide whether to charge the officers involved in Clark’s death. Rather, he opted to review the case with the help of senior prosecutors in his office, “as is done with all other criminal cases,” he said.
Then, Freeman made the evidence - videos, witness statements, volumes of reports - available to the public.
By doing so, Freeman increased the transparency of the review process, something that has been widely criticized in police shootings, observers said.
“I think Mike’s ultimate goal was the public needs to hear all the facts and, when they do, he’s confident they’ll come to the same conclusion he and his staff did,” Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said. “So in order to put all the facts out there, he went this route. I don’t know how much more transparent he could be.”
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said Minnesota prosecutors began to discuss and scrutinize the grand jury process and how to best handle these situations even before Clark’s death.
At the end of the day, whether a grand jury makes the call or a county attorney, the law on use of deadly force remains the same, Choi said.
“We have to recognize, and I think Mike (Freeman) did a good job of articulating, what the law is,” Choi said.
“We have to answer the question of whether or not a shooting was justified. And in the law, deadly force is recognized.”
According to Minnesota law, the use of deadly force by an officer is considered justified “to protect the peace officer or another from apparent death or great bodily harm.”
Some credit should be given to the Black Lives Matter movement for their efforts to improve transparency in police shooting investigations, particularly the grand jury process, said Bradford Colbert, a public defender and professor at Mitchell Hamline law school.
“Black Lives Matter did an incredible service to the community, in that they made this process much more transparent and much more credible,” Colbert said. “Before, it was done behind the secrecy of a grand jury. But for Black Lives Matter, that’s what would’ve happened here. They brought transparency to the system.”
Rep. Keith Ellison said in a statement that Freeman’s decision not to bring criminal charges “does not foreclose federal action or civil action for violation of Jamar Clark’s civil rights.”
But Robert Bennett, a Minneapolis attorney who has won civil rights cases against several area police departments, said he thinks a suit against Minneapolis police in this case would be difficult. If officers believed Clark was a suspect in a domestic assault, they had a right to arrest him with force, and if one officer said Clark was going for his gun, the other officer most likely would be found to have “qualified immunity” from civil action for using deadly force.
Bennett said he lost a similar case 16 years ago. Woodbury police shot and killed a man in the midst of a struggle during a domestic assault call. One officer said Perry Parks, 42, was trying to grab his gun. A fellow officer shot him, even though Parks’ wife was there and telling them her husband didn’t have a hand on the gun.
The court ruled the officer who fired the shot had immunity because his fellow officer said he feared for his life.
“It makes a case with this kind of evidence essentially prohibitive, especially if they got (Clark’s) DNA on the gun,” Bennett said.
Freeman said, and others agreed, that his decision was bound by the law, but he thinks it would be better to focus on improving police training on de-escalating situations than on changing the law.
“I think he’s exactly right. This is the law,” Colbert said. “That doesn’t mean they should shoot all the time. … There’s a world of difference between murder charges and proper police conduct. I never heard (Freeman) say this is exactly how we want our officers to behave; what he said was these are not appropriate circumstances to bring murder charges.”