While I was doing some research for a previous post on the Michael Brown shooting incident, it occurred to me that it was really a shame that someone did not have a video of the incident. I firmly believed at the time that if there were visual evidence of the entire sequence of events, there would be no question regarding the guilt or innocence of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown. After all, while eye witness testimony is often unreliable and contradictory, video evidence is undeniable.
So when I saw the video of Eric Garner being choked by New York police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, I was sure that my earlier thoughts about the value of video evidence in such cases would be confirmed. It appeared clear to me that the reports that the overly aggressive police tactics had resulted in Garner’s death were undeniable. Then I read that the city medical examiner’s report identified the primary cause of death as “neck compression from the apparent choke hold, along with the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police”. The medical examiner also ruled that Garner’s death was a homicide. I remember thinking, okay, this is an open and shut case. The only question in my mind was with which one of a range of possible crimes would Pantaleo be charged.
Then like everyone else I was shocked to find out that the Staten Island grand jury failed to find probable cause to press any charges. Amazing! Simply Amazing! What use is a video of a crime if the crime is not prosecuted? Why spend millions of dollars equipping police officers with body cameras if video recordings of police abuse are not properly investigated and punished.
Of course the real problem in this case is that it appears that the Staten Island prosecutor presented his case to the grand jury in a similar manner to that used in the Ferguson, Missouri grand jury investigation. That is that the prosecutor didn’t seek an indictment as he would against you and me if we were involved in a crime. No one acted as the victim’s advocate. Like the St. Louis prosecutor, the Staten Island prosecutor simply dumped all of the evidence and witness on the grand jury and let them figure out if there was probable cause. Like the Ferguson case, the police officer was allowed to tell his side of the story without being challenged. And of course the victim was not available to tell his side. In addition all of the other police officers involved in his death were given immunity from prosecution for their testimony so they could defend their buddy and fellow officer without incriminating themselves.
When are we going to figure out in this country that the grand jury system was designed to protect us from over zealous prosecution, not to protect over zealous police officers from prosecution? The grand jury system works only when the prosecutor acts an advocate for the victim. We cannot ask a prosecutor who works on a continual basis with the police officers in his district to be an advocate for the victim in a police abuse case because he has a major conflict of interest. He or she is often more predisposed to being an advocate of the police officer.
The only thing that I can think of that might work is to appoint a special prosecutor in egregious cases like this one, someone who has no relationships with the police department in question. That might not be a panacea, but it is better than nothing.