One Year After Tamir Rice's Shooting, Grand Jury Weighs Evidence

A memorial stands near the spot where Tamir Rice was fatally shot by a police officer.
A memorial stands near the spot where Tamir Rice was fatally shot by a police officer. (Nick Castele / ideastream)
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One year ago today, 12-year-old Tamir Rice died at a Cleveland hospital. He’d been shot the day before by a Cleveland police officer at a park near his home. The case put the city police in the national spotlight just before the Justice Department announced the findings of an investigation into excessive use of force by the Cleveland Police Department.

Twelve months after Rice’s shooting, prosecutors are presenting the case to a grand jury to determine whether the officers should face charges.

ideastream’s Nick Castele is here to update us on the case. Nick, remind us what happened the day of the shooting last year.

CASTELE: It was on a weekend afternoon last year that Tamir Rice was playing with an air gun in a park on the west side of Cleveland. This resembled a real pistol, but it shot plastic pellets. Someone called 9-1-1 to report this and said the gun was probably fake. He said he wasn’t sure if the gun was real or not, but the dispatcher didn’t relay that information to police. Officers drove onto the grass just a few feet away from Rice, and within two seconds, Officer Timothy Loehmann fired. Tamir Rice died the next day.

RICK: And one year later, where are we?

CASTELE: Starting in January, the county sheriff took over the investigation and released their report this summer. The report said investigators couldn’t determine for certain whether police shouted any warnings or commands to Tamir Rice before the shooting. Now the case is in the hands of prosecutors, who have taken it to a grand jury. And it’s the grand jury that will decide whether officers should face charges.

RICK: The prosecutor surprised some people over the past few weeks, releasing a series of expert reports. What’s in these?

CASTELE: The prosecutor released three reports from experts whom he’d asked to look at the case. One is a former FBI agent who instructs on use of force issues. The other is a Colorado prosecutor who has investigated similar cases before. And the third expert is a law enforcement consultant and former sheriff. All three concluded that Officer Loehmann acted reasonably in shooting. They said a reasonable officer could have believed that Tamir Rice had a real weapon.

RICK: You’ve spoken with experts about this case. What did they say about the prosecutor’s decision to release all this information to the public?

CASTELE: There were a variety of perspectives on that question. University of Akron law professor Marge Koosed told me that given how high profile this case is, she could understand the decision. 

KOOSED: “Going more open when it’s usually a secret process is probably a helpful transparency to letting the public know what forms the investigation is taking.”

RICK: Does this change how the grand jury might view the case?

CASTELE: In the minds of some of the legal experts I spoke with, yes. Here’s Case Western Reserve University law professor Michael Benza. He says it is unusual to produce expert reports concluding a person who’s under criminal investigation acted within the law. But he says prosecutors—and the justice system, in fact—often treat police cases differently.

BENZA: “If this was a non-officer shooting, the question would be, did he shoot or did he not? And who did it? And that would be the end of it. And that’s not even the question at all in an officer-involved case. In an officer-involved case, we know what happened, who know who did what. The issue really focuses on was it an appropriate use of force, which the law doesn’t easily answer.”

CASTELE: And given the release of those reports, and their content, Benza says it would be logical to conclude an indictment may not be coming. But not everyone was so sure. This is Roger Fairfax, he’s a law professor at George Washington University in D.C. Fairfax says grand jurors are going to have to weigh these reports in alongside the complete picture of all the evidence presented to them.

FAIRFAX: “They’ll have to pay attention to the assumptions made in the reports, what information the reports are based on and whether there’s a competing narrative that perhaps they haven’t been exposed to.”

CASTELE: And to that point, grand jurors will be hearing from Tamir Rice’s mother, Samaria Rice. Her attorney says she’ll be testifying before the grand jury in the coming weeks.

RICK: The family of Tamir Rice, they’ve criticized this approach, haven’t they?

CASTELE: Yes, attorneys for the family say the prosecutor has selected experts who were overly favorable to law enforcement in their analysis of the case and their background. And Tamir Rice’s mother, as well as her lawyers, have called for a special prosecutor to take over this case.

RICK: Well, what does the current prosecutor say about all this?

CASTELE: Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty says he’ll release to the public all the expert reports that he receives. And he says this in the interest of being transparent. And as for the calls for a special prosecutor, McGinty hasn’t yet shown any signs that he’s going to step aside. 

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