Tamir Rice family attorney says expert reports have ‘tainted grand jury process’
Newly unearthed comments about deadly police shootings made by the two experts who defended an Ohio officer’s killing of Tamir Rice have intensified criticisms of prosecutors for selecting them to review the 12-year-old’s death.
One appeared to publicly cast doubt on whether the officer who killed Rice was at fault even before he was commissioned to write a report on the case, the Guardian has learned; the other saw her interpretation of a key US supreme court ruling on police shootings rejected by the Justice Department as too generous to officers.
Attorneys for the family of Rice, who was killed by police officer Timothy Loehmann while holding a pellet gun in a park in Cleveland in November last year, said the pair of external reports had “tainted the grand jury process” that is considering criminal charges against Loehmann.
“It’s clear to the Rice family that these so-called experts were selected to present a point of view to defend the officer’s conduct,” said Subodh Chandra, an attorney for the family.
Chandra said the unusual decision to request and publish the external reports by Timothy McGinty, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, was “an unprecedented thing for a prosecutor to do on behalf of someone potentially facing a murder charge”.
McGinty, who is overseeing the grand jury process, released the two reports on Saturday. They were written by S Lamar Sims, the senior chief deputy district attorney for Denver, Colorado, and Kimberly Crawford, a retired FBI agent who teaches criminal justice at Northern Virginia Community College.
Sims concluded in his report that Loehmann’s actions were “objectively reasonable” due to his stated belief that Rice was holding a real firearm and posed a threat. Crawford wrote that the shooting “falls within the realm of reasonableness” defined under the US constitution. McGinty said his office was “not reaching any conclusions” from the reports and would present all evidence to a grand jury.
The reports were swiftly condemned by activists who have campaigned for a criminal prosecution over the death of Rice, who was shot within a second of Loehmann arriving at Cudell Commons and leaping out of his patrol car.
Spokespeople for McGinty did not return a request for comment on why Sims and Crawford were chosen for the task, and how much, if at all, they were paid. As he released their reports McGinty said Sims was “a frequent speaker at seminars on proper use of force by law enforcement officers and has handled numerous fatal use of deadly force investigations”, while Crawford “taught classes in the use of deadly force”. Sims and Crawford did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Speaking in May, two months before he was asked by McGinty to review the Rice shooting, Sims alluded to the case while explaining in an interview why fatal police shootings may be ruled justified even when they appear unacceptable to the general public. He told Denver 8, a government-run television station , that fatal police shootings must be judged “not with 20/20 hindsight, but what we knew at the time”.
“The community may react to facts learned later, for example, looking round the nation, say you have a 12- or 13-year-old boy, with a toy gun. We learn that later,” said Sims. “The question is, what did the officer know at the time, what should a reasonable police officer have known at the time when he or she took the steps that led to the use of physical force or deadly physical force.”
Crawford, meanwhile, had a memo outlining her view on the legality of the use of force by law enforcement rejected by the Justice Department. The memo, co-authored with another senior FBI agent, argued that a deadly shooting of a woman by an FBI sniper after the woman and her associates had run for cover had been reasonable. It was contradicted by a Justice Department review of the incident.
The memo defended a shot fired by the FBI sniper during the 1992 Ruby Ridge confrontation in Idaho between white separatist Randy Weaver and officials from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). The shot went through a door and killed Weaver’s wife, Vicki, after the Weavers and a friend fled into their home following an earlier exchange of gunfire.
Crawford said the deadly shot was justified due to to Tennessee v Garner, a landmark 1985 supreme court ruling that outlined when a law enforcement officer may shoot at a so-called “fleeing felon”. She and her co-author said the sniper reasonably believed the suspects “pose[d] a threat of serious physical harm”.
But Justice Department officials wrote in their 1994 report that the shooting did not meet the standard of the supreme court ruling because “the retreating subjects did not pose an imminent threat of physical harm”.
They said of Crawford’s memo: “We reject this analysis to the extent that it implies that a reasonable belief that a suspect has committed a crime involving the infliction of serious physical harm eliminates the necessity of considering whether a threat is imminent before deadly force is used.”
The FBI sniper was eventually charged, in 1997, with involuntary manslaughter. After several years of legal wrangling, the case was dropped by Idaho prosecutors. Mentions of Crawford and her memo are redacted in the version of the 1994 report available on the Justice Department’s website. They appear in a full version obtained and published by Douglas Linder, a law professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City.
On Monday Chandra, the Rice family attorney, accused McGinty of “making no effort to secure justice” for Tamir and said that the boy’s mother, Samaria, thought the prosecutor should step aside to allow outside authorities to take charge of the case.
“Ms Rice has always been wary of the prosecutor but gave him the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “But she now believes that because he has tainted the process, a special prosecutor would be best.”
Amid disputes over the handling of the case, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential frontrunner, made a statement backing Rice’s family. “Sending support to Tamir Rice’s loved ones,” she said on Twitter . “Too many black families are mourning the loss of a child. We need to change that reality.”