Justice proposal is worth discussion

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Last weekend, Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden took to these pages with a lengthy response to the Iowa Justice Alliance, a group critical of his handling of the November officer-involved shooting of Jerime Mitchell in Cedar Rapids.

The alliance, including County Supervisor Stacey Walker, would require county attorneys to appoint special prosecutors to handle officer-involved shooting cases referred to grand juries. Vander Sanden strongly opposes the idea.

“While no one opposes exploring legitimate improvements to our criminal justice system, this effort smacks of result-driven politics by a group with a social agenda,” Vander Sanden wrote, arguing the group’s members want change simply because they “didn’t get the result they had hoped for.”

In December, Vander Sanden referred the Mitchell case to a grand jury, which declined to level criminal charges at officer Lucas Jones. Jones, hanging from Mitchell’s truck as Mitchell tried to drive way from a traffic stop turned violent, fired three shots, one striking Mitchell in the neck. Mitchell is paralyzed.

Vander Sanden took the case to a grand jury despite the fact investigators had been unable to take a statement from Mitchell. Even for those of us who agree with the grand jury’s ultimate conclusion, that wide gap in the record casts a cloud over the outcome. So Vander Sanden’s right, many of us didn’t get the result we hoped for, namely a fair, complete grand jury process.

Truth is, the idea of handing these cases over to a special prosecutor is a legitimate proposal to improve the system, one being debated and enacted in states and communities across the country. It’s aimed squarely at the perception that local prosecutors who work closely with police can’t set aside those ties to objectively investigate a police shooting. Vander Sanden takes issue with that perception. But it exists, especially when the process comes up short. I also can’t think of a major criminal justice reform effort that wasn’t driven by a strong “social agenda,” often sparked by a tragedy. The Mitchell case still is stirring debate. But the real issue is, what happens next time?

Vander Sanden makes a compelling, persuasive case that a locally elected prosecutor is more accountable to citizens than a special prosecutor. But the notion of arms’ length independence in these sensitive, emotionally charged cases has strong appeal.

Maybe the solution is creating a position in the Iowa Attorney General’s Office designated to handle officer-involved incidents. It would provide independent review of cases anywhere in Iowa, originating from an office overseen by an elected attorney general. It could be both independent and accountable. The AG’s office often takes over local prosecutions to avoid possible conflicts.

It’s probably not the sort of plan that will gain much traction in the current Legislature, but it’s worth a discussion. And while we’re at it, let’s address the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation’s insistence that Iowans can’t see investigative records, even from closed cases. It’s a massive barrier to public accountability.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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