Thursday, August 13, 2015

A word on grand juries, secrecy and police shootings

Posted By on Thu, Aug 13, 2015 at 11:32 AM

When a grand jury clears a police officer in a shooting death of a citizen, good luck finding out what evidence was weighed in reaching that decision.
click to enlarge Guy was shot in the back with no warning in 2011.
  • Guy was shot in the back with no warning in 2011.
That's because, by law, the proceeding is a secret and nobody can speak publicly about it.

So when a grand jury cleared Colorado Springs Police Officer Nathan Jorstad in July 2011 of the shooting death of James Guy Jr., 22, on April 22, 2011, the public was barred from knowing:

— whether the police perpetuated their claim made to the public at the time that officers gave Guy a warning before the shooting, which is false, according to police and District Attorney's Office investigative reports.

— whether police and investigators told the grand jury Guy was shot in the back, not the chest as Jorstad claimed when interviewed by DA's investigators, or the "torso," as police told the public.

Those points are the basis of the Independent's petition to a District Court judge, submitted this week, to open the transcripts of the Jorstad grand jury, a case explored in the Indy's story "Case closed."

From the petition:
Colorado Springs police told citizens at the time of the shooting that Officer Jorstad shot James Guy in the “torso,” even though police knew at that time that Mr. Guy had been shot in the back. This misrepresentation of the facts was perpetuated when the grand jury returned no true bill in July 2011. The fact Mr. Guy was shot in the back remained a well-kept secret until the Independent reported that the autopsy report clearly states he was shot in the back. 

Colorado Springs police told citizens that Mr. Guy was warned to stop shooting but then pointed a gun at houses, prompting Officer Jorstad to fire a shotgun at him, killing him. This is not true. There was no warning given by anyone prior to the fatal shot being fired. Again, this fact was stated by many witnesses to the shooting, including other police officers as well as Officer Jorstad himself, and can be found in investigators’ and police reports of the incident....

The very fact that the Colorado Springs Police Department misrepresented key facts of this shooting to the public is ample evidence in support ordering transcripts be disclosed so that the public can know whether the misrepresentations made to the public were reiterated in the grand jury room, or whether the true facts were, indeed, presented to the grand jury.
It's relatively rare for a judge to order a grand jury transcript released, and even those who testify before a grand jury might face sanctions if they reveal their testimony. It took 58 years for the government to release partial transcripts from the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy case from 1950 and 1951. However, due to the high public profile of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year, transcripts were released of that grand jury proceeding.

The latest development in all of this debate is California Gov. Jerry Brown's signing into law Tuesday a bill that bars prosecutors from relying on grand juries to determine whether to charge law enforcement officers who kill citizens.

The website sfgate.com reports that backers viewed grand juries as a way to keep key facts from the public. Author of the bill, Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, says, “One doesn’t have to be a lawyer to understand why SB227 makes sense. The use of the criminal grand jury process, and the refusal to indict as occurred in Ferguson and other communities of color, has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise our justice system.”

The California District Attorneys Association opposed the bill, arguing use of grand juries is relatively rare in cases of officer-involved shootings, and that prosecutors should be given the option, according to the website.

We've asked District Attorney Dan May for a comment on the California law and will update if and when we hear back.

Mayor John Suthers has downplayed incidents of police brutality reported by the Independent in July and August — including an 18-year-old being slammed to the floor by an officer twice her size, and a cohort of officers setting off an explosion in another citizen's house.

Suthers says, "The public, as well as investigative reporters, need to understand the frequency with which the police encounter difficult situations with potential danger to officers and the public." Apparently, Suthers didn't read the article, "Full Force," July 15, 2015, because it does report that frequency, as follows:
In response to the Indy's open-records request, the department reports that from 2011 through April 23 of this year, Springs police officers were accused by citizens of using excessive force 209 times, hitting a peak of 63 in 2013 — about one per week, on average. Only three of those 209 complaints were ruled valid through an internal process in which cops evaluate one another.

But records suggest officers find themselves in hundreds of situations per year in which they respond to being on the receiving end of aggression. From 2012 to 2014, officers filed Response to Aggression forms that represented 929 incidents that involved 1,060 officers. In that period, the number of incidents grew by 22.5 percent, and the number of officers involved grew by 54 percent.
We'd like to tell you what all those responses to aggression were, but the CSPD won't release those records.

Suthers, formerly DA here, has used grand juries to clear cops in shootings.

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