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Linn County attorney has no plans for special prosecutor in grand jury case

Jerry Vander Sanden to present evidence regarding officer-involved shooting

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden says he has no intention of turning over the duties of presenting evidence to a grand jury in the case of an officer-involved shooting of a Cedar Rapids man to a special prosecutor.

“I fully intend to discharge this responsibility in a professional, conscientious and ethical manner,” Vander Sanden said in a written statement Thursday, one day after Stacey Walker, a Linn County Supervisor, called for Vander Sanden to appoint a special prosecutor. “My choice to present this officer-involved shooting case to the grand jury is consistent with the practice of my colleagues across the state. In my judgment, this type of decision ought to be made by the locally elected prosecutor who then can be held to account for and made to support his decision.

“The people rightfully expect their chosen leaders to make tough decisions and not run away from them.”

Walker, who was elected to his supervisor post on Nov. 8, called for a special prosecutor Wednesday night during a benefit for the family of Jerime “Danky” Mitchell, 38, who was shot during a traffic stop by Cedar Rapids Officer Lucas Jones on Nov. 1.

During the benefit at the African American Museum of Iowa, Walker said Vander Sanden should remove himself due to “his necessary relationship with law enforcement officials and his prior connection to a case of the use of lethal force that involved the same police officer, who stands accused in this case.”

Officer Jones was involved in the fatal shooting of Jonathan Gossman on Oct. 20, 2015, which Vander Sanden determined was justified. In this case, Jones remains on paid leave in accordance with policy.

Walker, on Thursday, said he shared his thoughts about a special prosecutor with Vander Sanden before making the public announcement at the benefit.

“I told him I had heard arguments from the general public,” Walker said. “We have a good working relationship. He’s on one of the task forces I chair. During the call, he shared his thoughts with me. The ball is in his court. I’m in a wait-and-see mode.”

Walker didn’t disclose further details of the phone conversation.

Vander Sanden, in his statement, said he is disappointed in what Walker had to say during the benefit.

“His comments seemed to encourage unwarranted suspicion and distrust of police and prosecutors,” Vander Sanden said, adding he takes his oath of office seriously and intends to oversee one of his “statutory duties” in presenting the case to the grand jury.

“Furthermore, his suggestion that Linn County residents can’t expect to receive justice from local law enforcement or prosecution is an unwarranted slur upon those who have committed themselves to protecting and serving the people,” Vander Sanden said. “It is unfortunate he has chosen to politicize our legal process of justice.”

Should Vander Sanden change his mind and follow Walker’s request, there is an official process for appointing an “outside” or special prosecutor, according to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.

Iowa Code stipulates that if a conflict of interest exists, a chief judge or a chief judge’s designee can appoint an attorney to act as a county attorney or special prosecutor. In the alternative, the chief judge could appoint an attorney general as the prosecutor.

The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation has reviewed the Mitchell shooting and turned its report over to Vander Sanden, who hasn’t disclosed the findings.

In cases of past officer-involved shootings, Vander Sanden has reviewed the DCI’s reports and has made the rulings himself as to whether the use of force was justified. Last month, he announced his office would take the case involving Jones and Mitchell to a grand jury. He concluded “it would be in the public interest” to do so.

A grand jury panel of seven is to be randomly selected and five of them would have to agree that an indictment is warranted. Then, it would be up to the county attorney to decide the appropriate charges.

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