Last year, the nation was shocked and horrified by a video that showed a twelve-year-old African-American boy, Tamir Rice, being shot within two seconds upon arrival by Officer Timothy Loehmann. Most people expected at least an indictment, if not a conviction, that would give some justice to Rice’s family. In fact, Judge Ronald Adrine reviewed the case and recommended the prosecutor, Timothy McGinty, seek an indictment. But on Monday, the grand jury released the decision that Loehmann will not be facing charges.
This is surprising, and for some, angering, for several reasons. The video seems to be cut and dry in terms of Loehmann’s guilt. A primary defense was that the toy gun looked real, and the dispatcher failed to communicate this to the officers, in which case a police officer could feel like his life is threatened. But Ohio is an open carry state, so even if the gun was real, there still wouldn’t have been a reasonable cause to shoot. In addition, Loehmann was far from a model officer – he had been previously asked to leave a different police force in Independence, Ohio, with some serious misgivings about his ability to rationally conduct himself in stressful situations as an officer.
Probable cause is a low bar, much lower than the standard of proof for a criminal trial. It just requires that there is reasonable basis to believe that a crime may have been committed. Given the video and the fact that Rice was a juvenile with a fake gun, it’s not surprising a judge recommended an indictment. But the reason lies with the prosecution – McGinty didn’t recommend that the grand jury indict. While the public isn’t privy to the proceedings of a grand jury, a prosecution that’s not in favor of prosecuting won’t make a case of probable cause to the jury, but they can blame the jury when it fails to indict.
Another factor that plays into the debate about the decision is the racially charged discussion surrounding Rice’s death. McGinty said that part of the decision was that Rice appeared older than he was, and therefore appeared to the officers as a threat. But is that because he actually appeared older than twelve, or just that African-American boys are not afforded the same innocence presumed of their Caucasian counterparts? Did Rice’s race, given that they were in a crime-ridden neighborhood, make him seem more threatening? Rice’s death has added fuel to the fire of Black Lives Matter and other civil rights movements across the country, and the lack of indictment seems to give them more credence.
While Rice’s family will never get the results they seek from the justice system, the national mood about the secret grand jury process is changing. In August, for example, California became the first state to ban grand juries in cases involving police incidents with deadly force. The result of the outrage following this decision may be that we see more states follow suit.