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Akron officials set up 'demonstration zone,' explain grand jury process ahead of Walker decision

Concrete barriers arrive in Akron
City of Akron
City employees prepare to set up cement blocks in downtown Akron for a 'demonstration zone,' a designated area for protests ahead of the Jayland Walker grand jury decision.

Akron officials are setting up a “demonstration zone” on South High St. in Downtown Akron after it was announced a Summit County grand jury will be seated Monday in the Jayland Walker case, officials said Friday.

The goal of the zone is to create a space for potential protesters to gather without having to worry about vehicular traffic, said Akron's Chief Communications Officer Stephanie Marsh, during a Facebook Live event Friday.

“We understand folks may want to demonstrate elsewhere, right? We understand folks may want to march,” Marsh said. “The city will absolutely support and protect the right of our citizens to their First Amendment rights, wherever they choose to do that, as long as that’s done non-violently in a peaceful way.”

Walker, 25, was killed by Akron police in the early hours of June 27 after a car and foot chase. His killing sparked protests that continued for several days after his family demanded justice and police released bodycam footage of Walker's death. The city issued a curfew after protests turned destructive.

During the Facebook Live event, city officials said they got the idea for a demonstration zone after talking with staff from other cities that have encountered similar situations, Marsh added.

“Creating that space intentionally, and setting that there for a certain period of time, has worked well for other cities,” Marsh said.

Two-lane traffic will continue on High Street in the meantime until officials “activate” the zone, according to the city’s Facebook page.

Other city entities are also making plans for possible protests.

The Akron Municipal Court, located on South High Street, will be closed to the public beginning Monday, according to a Friday news release. Arraignments will be held remotely until further notice.

While the city says it supports the public's right to peacefully protest, Akron City Prosecutor Craig Morgan during the Facebook Live event said acts such as smashing windows and setting fires could warrant arrests and potential charges.

Morgan also gave an overview of the grand jury process and answered a couple of questions from the community.

"The purpose of the grand jury is to determine whether sufficient probable cause exists to charge a person or persons with a particular offense or offenses," Morgan said.

Once the grand jury is seated Monday, April 10, it will likely take at least a week for jurors to hear evidence pertaining to the eight officers involved in the fatal shooting, Morgan added.

What’s not known, he said, is how long jurors will deliberate over whether to indict any of the officers.

“Could a decision be announced in two days after they get all the information? It could. Could it take a week? It could. We simply don’t know how long it will take,” Morgan said.

He described the initial process as being similar to a “lottery” and residents from across Summit County have received letters notifying them of their selection, he said.

On Monday, a judge and a special prosecutor from the Ohio Attorney General’s office will sit down with each of the people selected and ask questions to determine if they may have biases or lived experiences that could prohibit them from being impartial in the case, he said.

An example of bias could include someone having a family member who is a police officer, Morgan said.

“It doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be fair and impartial, it just means, because that relation exists, it’s best to excuse them from potential jury service,” Morgan said.

People may also be excused if they have significant scheduling conflicts, such as caring for a sick family member, he added.

The judge and special prosecutor will select nine jurors and three to five alternates. Once the jury is seated, the jurors will hear presentations from the special prosecutor. These presentations could include body camera footage, audio, written statements and testimony from experts, witnesses and possibly defendants.

Jurors can ask defendants a myriad of questions, Morgan added. The special prosecutor will also review potential charges with the jurors.

After the presentations, the jurors will deliberate. They will either decide “true bill,” meaning there is enough credible evidence to charge an individual with a crime, or “no bill,” meaning there is no probable cause to indict. Jurors will vote on each charge. Seven out of the nine jurors are required to issue an indictment.

The First Congregational Church of Akron and Temple Israel will host a Zoom webinar about the grand jury process Monday at 6 p.m., featuring Gert Wilms, chief of staff for Mayor Dan Horrigan and a former city prosecutor.

The city recently rolled out a website that includes more information on the grand jury process, the demonstration zones and other communication ahead of the grand jury’s decision.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.