A group of community activists in Cleveland dropped a bombshell yesterday when they petitioned a municipal judge to order the arrest of the officers who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice last winter. They invoked a rarely-used Ohio law that allows a group of private citizens to bypass the county prosecutor and directly petition for arrest warrants.
The Atlantic managed to obtain copies of the affidavits. Read them here. Eight activists petitioned Cleveland Municipal Court judge Ronald Adrine to have Officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback arrested for aggravated murder, murder, reckless homicide, negligent homicide, and dereliction of duty. Loehmann, for those who missed it, is the man who pulled the trigger, while Garmback was his field training officer.
The petitioners used a law dating back to 1960 that allows a private citizen “with knowledge of the facts” in a case to directly petition a judge or magistrate for arrest warrants. Only a few other states–including my state of North Carolina–allow citizens to bypass the prosecutor in this way. The judge or magistrate can reject the affidavit if he deems it to be malicious or inaccurate–a safeguard that, as I found out the hard way, seems to be lacking in North Carolina’s law. Not surprisingly, given the obscure nature of this law, most petitions using it have been frivolous. This petition, however, is as far from frivolous as you can get. Not only is there video of Tamir’s shooting, but his death has already been ruled a homicide.
This move, drastic as it may seem, came due to growing skepticism about the way similar cases of deaths at the hands of police have been handled. Darren Wilson wasn’t indicted for shooting Michael Brown–even though prosecutors allowed the grand jury to consider Wilson’s actions in light of a law that has been unenforceable for three decades. Daniel Panteleo wasn’t indicted for choking Eric Garner to death even though video showed Panteleo was in no real hurry to get off Garner even as Garner was saying he couldn’t breathe. Clearly, the petitioners don’t want Tamir’s death to be added to that list of travesties. One of them, Pastor R. A. Vernon, admitted as much, saying that he signed the petition because “I wish I could depend on our criminal justice system to do what is right.”
Ultimately, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinity will still have to convene a grand jury, which will make the final decision on whether to formally indict Loehmann and Garmback. McGinity’s office just received the results of an independent investigation by the Cuyahoga County sheriff’s office last week, and has said that his office will conduct its own probe before empaneling a grand jury. However, the activists contended that the video showing Tamir’s death shows more than enough probable cause for an arrest.
Looking at the video, it’s hard not to agree. It shows Loehmann and Garmback’s car driving into the grass and stopping next to Tamir. Loehmann then jumped out and shot Tamir only 1.5 seconds after he arrived–nowhere near enough time to give a warning first. They were responding to calls about someone walking around the park and brandishing a gun–which turned out to be a toy. Even though it was obvious that Tamir was gravely injured, Loehmann and Garmback then stood by for several minutes without giving first aid.
Case Western Reserve University law professor Andrew Benza told The Atlantic that considering the video evidence and a number of other factors, Adrine would have “no choice but to issue a warrant” for Loehmann and Garmback’s arrests. He also told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer that any claim that Loehmann had the right to use force since Tamir was reaching for his pellet gun won’t be enough to keep him out of jail.
Cleveland Patrolmen’s Association president Stephen Loomis denounced the petition as an attempt to “hijack rule of law” by using the threat of “mob rule.” Loomis forgot that this provision does not force a prosecutor to take a case to the grand jury, and that an arrest is not the same as an indictment. But then again, I should have expected this from a guy who continues to defend an officer who was forced to resign due to emotional problems, and who openly admitted to working under the table prior to applying in Cleveland.
It may take some time to actually arrest Loehmann and Garmback, considering that this is a murder case and the warrants are based on a little-known law. But if Benza is right, it’s very likely they will be arrested. And when those arrests do come, they will be long overdue.