I am writing in response to The Gazette story about the group calling itself the Iowa Justice Alliance that is seeking changes to the way officer-involved shootings are handled (“After traffic stop shooting, growing chorus for change,” Jan. 15). 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. It appears this group is seeking to change the justice system because they didn’t get the result they had hoped for in the Jerime Mitchell case.
One of the changes advocated by this group would require county attorneys to request a special prosecutor when presenting an officer-involved shooting case to a grand jury. This proposal would represent a dramatic change in Iowa law and practice.
Current Iowa law imposes a statutory duty on the county attorney to convene the grand jury and give it legal advice. In addition, the county attorney is only permitted to request the appointment of a special prosecutor when a legal conflict of interest exists. The fact that a peace officer is the target of a grand jury investigation does not constitute a legal conflict. I could not find any county attorney in Iowa that requested a special prosecutor to present an officer-involved shooting case to a grand jury.
It is hard to follow the line of reasoning of those who argue that county attorneys, who are entrusted to handle the most important offenses in the criminal code including murder, rape, robbery and burglary, cannot be relied upon to properly handle officer-involved shooting cases because of the parties involved. County attorneys objectively review police conduct and decisions every day. It is an important part of their duty and professional responsibility.
Justice decisions are best made at the local level by elected officials who can then be held to account to the public they serve for their decisions. Who thinks a “special prosecutor” would have stuck around to hold a news conference to announce and explain the decision of the grand jury and attend subsequent meetings and forums to take questions and answer criticism about the Jerime Mitchell case? Where would you turn if you didn’t like the way a special prosecutor handled a case?
The clearest evidence about what is really behind the agenda of the Iowa Justice Alliance came from Supervisor Stacey Walker after a Linn County grand jury declined to recommend charges against Cedar Rapids police officer Lucas Jones.
Mr. Walker wrote that I should still use my authority to charge Officer Jones with criminal offenses and take him to trial. That is, even though the grand jurors found there was insufficient evidence to warrant filing criminal charges, he argued I should substitute my judgment for that of the grand jury and charge Officer Jones anyway and make him stand trial.
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When someone suggests a county attorney should disregard the judgment of a grand jury decision, it indicates they are more concerned about the results than respecting the legal process.
I understand the criticism that no statement was obtained from Jerime Mitchell. The DCI tried numerous times to talk with him, without success, even after he had been transferred out of state for medical care. The one date agreed upon for an interview was canceled by Mitchell’s lawyer. The DCI has still not been allowed to ask Jerime Mitchell any questions. And although The Gazette saw fit to note the city did not make Officer Jones available for their story, they failed to mention whether they tried to interview Mitchell. Why describe efforts to interview one party but not the other?
Nonetheless, apart from the issue of statements, there was a video-recording of the entire encounter between Officer Jones and Jerime Mitchell from start to finish. It wasn’t like anyone had to take another’s word at face value for what occurred. The grand jury saw the same video that has now been disseminated to the public. They concluded Officer Jones was justified in using deadly force. Changing prosecutors wouldn’t have changed the evidence or the outcome. Incidentally, it is my practice at the beginning of a grand jury proceeding to present a schedule of witnesses expected to testify and to remind jurors of their authority to subpoena any witness or record they deem material to their decision.
I fully appreciate the reason this incident is receiving close scrutiny. It is only natural to question how a traffic stop for an equipment violation disintegrated into a physical struggle and use of deadly force. Ninety-nine percent of these stops would have resulted in the driver being released with a warning. Unfortunately, after Officer Jones stopped Mitchell’s vehicle, he discovered he was dealing with more than just an equipment violation. He found he had stopped someone on his way to complete a drug deal.
It is true, as Dedric Doolin, the Cedar Rapids NAACP chapter president noted, “Dealing marijuana is not an offense punishable by death.” However, Jerime Mitchell was not shot because he was dealing drugs.
He intentionally put the life of a police officer in danger. The grand jury found the officer was justified in using deadly force to protect himself. Jerime Mitchell has to take some responsibility for the way things went down. It is not acceptable to physically resist an officer or flee the scene of a traffic stop.
We all favor change that furthers the ends of justice. But the problem isn’t always with police and prosecutors. It is also important to address the disrespectful attitudes some hold toward the law and those who are charged with the responsibility for its enforcement. Some could use a refresher course about civility toward the police. Perhaps the Iowa Justice Alliance could set as one of its goals an effort to influence and teach others about how to behave appropriately with police and show them the respect they deserve.
• Jerry Vander Sanden is Linn County Attorney.