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Franklin Co. Police Deadly Force Cases Handled Differently

Grand jury proceedings have come under intense scrutiny recently after two panels failed to indict police officers who killed unarmed African American men.

Grand jury proceedings have come under intense scrutiny recently after two panels failed to indict police officers who killed unarmed African American men.

WOSU examines how the Franklin County'’s grand jury process for police-involved cases is handled differently from other cases. If a Columbus police officer or Franklin County sheriff's deputy uses deadly force the case automatically goes before a grand jury.

It'’s been that way in Franklin County since 1980. Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’'Brien said the practice serves as a check and balance. “

"So that independent body of citizens can be a check on police investigating police, and some, I think justifiably, say, ‘well, gee, the prosecutor works with police everyday... they’'re covering up for them.’”"

Legal experts we talked with say it'’s a fairly standard policy around the country.

But recently, an Upper Arlington resident raised some questions about the process.

John Lytle has served on two Franklin County grand juries, once in 2001 and again in 2003. Both times, Lytle said grand jurors had to decide whether to indict a police officer for killing a citizen. Both times, they said no.

It wasn'’t necessarily the absence of an indictment that stood out to Lytle. It was the way the cases were presented to grand jurors that stuck with him. Lytle said they heard a number of cases a day. And most of the time, they were read a summary of the state'’s evidence. “

"The officer comes in and says ‘the person had a certain amount of drugs on him, and he had a gun and that'’s illegal,’ so right then he can be indicted. So we didn’'t spend a lot of time on those," Lytle said.

Lytle said police-involved cases were presented differently, on Friday afternoons and with various witnesses. “

"They gave us police testimony of the officers that were there; some witnesses that were there... Someone else that came in to try to explain why this was not an indictable shooting. As they say on TV it was a good shoot," Lytle said.  "That also was unusual compared to the other indictment process that we were going through.”" 

O’'Brien does not dispute that police cases are handled differently. He said in 95 percent of the cases presented to a grand jury, prosecutors only present a summary of the case, no witnesses. But in some cases –and all cases involving a police officer - grand juries hear from witnesses. “

"What we’re saying is, here are the facts of a police shooting," he said. "We want you as an independent group of citizens to look at these facts and determine whether or not there'’s sufficient evidence that supports a charge.”"

Grand jurors hear directly from the officer. They may hear from a self defense training expert. O’'Brien said someone from the victim’'s family gets a chance to appear as a character witness. O’'Brien said police cases are different because every officer-involved fatality goes before a grand jury, even in cases where the police action is clearly justified.

Critics, however, see special treatment. “

"It appears that police officers get certain preferences that other people don'’t get," Columbus activist Sam Gresham said.

Gresham has called on O’'Brien to appoint a special prosecutor for all police-related cases. Gresham argues the current process favors police.

"“It'’s obvious their mere presence in the room without cross examination gives them an unfair advantage."

The last time a Franklin County grand jury indicted a police officer for an on-the-job action was 1979. Ohio State University Moritz College of Law professor Ric Simmons said there are two motivations for more details. “

"One would be because the prosecutor essentially works closely with the police and wants to give the police an advantage, essentially. That’'s a cynical view," Simmons said.

A more “charitable view,” he said, is to let the grand jury work as an independent body. “

"So instead of simply telling the grand jury to indict the case, as they do in most cases, they’'re giving the grand jury all the possible information letting the grand jury decide for itself whether an indictment is appropriate."

”That’'s why O’'Brien said he wants the grand jury to see all of the evidence. “

"So I think the fact that we are actually trying the case, or submitting the witnesses themselves, rather than hearsay summaries, better fulfills that goal of letting the grand jury perform that independent review than if we just called one officer who summarized it," O'Brien said.

University of Illinois College of Law professor Andrew Liepold is an expert on grand juries. While he agrees Franklin County'’s police-involved grand jury procedure is commonplace, he said the prosecutor'’s office holds the responsibility of bringing an indictment. “

"The idea that the grand jury is some independent entity running around doing things contrary to prosecutor’'s wishes is I don'’t think true very often, and is a little bit of a distraction when it comes to talking about the proper treatment of officers involved in the use of violence against citizens," Liepold said.

Gresham added it'’s hard to know how zealous a prosecutor is when questioning a police officer about an incident because grand jury business is sealed. “

"There'’s no way to know. So when they come out with a ruling, you don’'t know how the grand jury has been manipulated," he said. "You don’'t know what kind of information they'’ve received. You don'’t know who’'s testified. You don’'t know under what conditions they'’ve testified. And you blatantly know no police officer is going to be cross-examined in a grand jury room.”" 

O'’Brien contended the current process works, and is a better one than if only a snapshot of evidence were provided. “

"We want the grand jury and the community to feel they’'ve seen and heard everything there is to present."

In the wake of the controversies, O’'Brien has agree to consider handing police shootings to a special prosecutor, but only on a case by case basis.