It’s unfortunate that I’m writing about something like the recent incidents that took place in Ferguson and Staten Island, considering that it’s the year 2014. Being a civil rights lawyer, over the years I’ve seen and heard about a lot of injustice, and it continues to be disappointing and painful to try to understand how such events could’ve taken place in today’s day and age. Yet, unfortunately, I hear about such discrimination and harassment every single week of my life given my calling.
It’s not just about race-even though that’s obviously the main issue. But what we need to focus our attention on is the injustice. The injustice of the grand juries and how-and let me emphasize again on how -they both came up with a no indictment.
As if one time in Ferguson wasn’t revolting enough, a week later we get the same no indictment in State Island. This speaks volumes to the injustice of the grand jury process in these two matters.
Let me discuss a little about the grand jury process and then focus on how terribly erroneous the grand jury processes were in Ferguson and Staten Island. Not so much the process, but the behavior of the prosecutors.
The duty of a grand juror is to determine whether there’s probable cause that an individual should be charged with a crime. Their job is not determining guilt. Grand jurors are normally only supposed to hear one side, the side of the prosecutor. This makes it extremely uncomplicated for the juries to present an indictment because all they’re hearing is one side.
In other words, a grand jury isn’t a trial. It’s a one man show. It’s the job of the prosecutor to get the indictment and in the Ferguson and Staten Island grand juries, the prosecutors didn’t do their job. The prosecutors wanted to lose. Now why would a prosecutor “want” to fail? Agreement between the defense counsel and the prosecutors? I think so. Here’s why.
In Ferguson, the grand jury was given more latitude when it came to calling witnesses and issuing subpoenas, when usually it’s the prosecutor who chooses the evidence that they’ll hear. The grand jury heard evidence and testimony for over three months, when a typical case tends to be presented in one day.
Over 60 witnesses were called to testify. What makes this disturbing is that Officer Wilson testified before the grand jury. He testified for four hours. This isn’t common practice in the grand jury process, having the defendant be present at all, let alone plead his defense. Coincidence that the prosecutor allowed this? I think not. Agreement with defense counsel or with higher ups? I think so. It should’ve been a slam dunk for the prosecutor. This isn’t stupidity on the prosecutor’s behalf, its potential collusion.
Now let’s discuss Staten Island the death of Eric Garner. All I have to say is there is a video; a video showing Mr. Garner clearly unable to breathe. He flat out said “I can’t breathe.” What more does a police officer need to hear to know that there’s obviously something wrong.
Mr. Garner died after being put into a banned chokehold during an arrest for selling untaxed, “loosie” cigarettes — a classic low-level offense. This wasn’t murder, or arson, or drug dealing or even driving under the influence. I’m a little confused as to why a chokehold was needed to take down a man for such a minor crime. Really. That’s what’s considered a “hard crime” nowadays that deserves a banned chokehold maneuver.
The medical examiner ruled Mr. Garner’s death a homicide. So police officer Pantaleo was responsible for Mr. Garner’s death. At best, Office Pantaleo committed negligent homicide. At worst, he’s a murderer.
Between the video and the medical examiner’s report, the grand jury still reached no indictment. This begs me to question, again, what we’re doing wrong in a society where it’s considered acceptable for a police officer to use a banned maneuver and then no one be held accountable for such actions. The prosecutor had a duty to Mr. Garner. He failed Mr. Garner.
I know that we’ve all been talking about how “someone” needs to be held accountable. Here’s the truth. The prosecutors wanted to lose in both cases. If they wanted an indictment, they could’ve easily gotten one. So, who is responsible for this injustice? The prosecutors. But really we need to change from the bottom up on how we live. Everyone needs and deserves the same education, the same economic opportunity, the same treatment. These events that happened in Ferguson and Staten Island are the symptoms of the disease, and until we treat everyone the same, it will only, unfortunately, continue.