After the grand jury fiasco orchestrated by Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan that returned “no true bill” for the murder of Eric Garner, there were cries for the return of a special prosecutor to handle cop killings. The rationale was straightforward, that local prosecutors were too close to police, relied upon police, and therefore couldn’t be trusted to prosecute cops.
That explanation makes sense, though it wasn’t necessarily the case. There were, are, prosecutors willing to do their job, even if it meant indicting cops. But then, others have failed, miserably, deliberately, disgracefully, to put all their empty rhetoric about crime and punishment to the test when it’s one of their beloved police officers on the wrong end of a killing. And it’s happened too often.
So Governor Andy Cuomo felt the need to do something. From the AP:
With lawmakers unable to agree on an approach as the legislative session ended, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday he’d use executive power to appoint Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for a year as special prosecutor for police killings.
Schneiderman sits in the chair that was warmed by Cuomo’s butt before him, and Eliot Spitzer before Cuomo. Both used it to jettison themselves to glory in their quests to be governor, and turned it into an effective bully pulpit despite the fact that the AG job wasn’t really what they tried to make it out to be.
The attorney general isn’t really a criminal prosecutor, but the state’s “chief legal counsel.” While there are some prosecutorial functions, such as Medicaid fraud and charity oversight, it’s got no statewide general criminal authority. That’s what district attorneys are for, though you wouldn’t know if from the way Spitzer used the office.
What the means is that Schneiderman doesn’t have the connection to cops that a real prosecutor would have, not being charged with handling the prosecution of crime. But it also means that Schneiderman’s office doesn’t have the staff, the resources or the experience to prosecute cops. They mostly push paper, and as anyone who has had the pleasure of being on the receiving end of an AG investigation knows, they aren’t the baddest prosecutors in town, and Cuomo knows it.
“I don’t believe this is the perfect alternative, but I believe it is the best alternative at this time,” said Cuomo, adding that he’d keep working toward legislation next year.
There’s nothing like a show of support by the guy who just appointed you to do a job, calling you not the “perfect alternative.” Maybe they can put that on the AG’s letterhead.
Some advocates who called for reform are praising the move. But district attorneys say it usurps a role they believe they play fairly and honorably, and relatives of people killed in New York police encounters say the temporary measure doesn’t go far enough.
The various sides lay out according to their enlightened self-interest and press releases, as expected. But then, why hasn’t the legislature come up with an answer, rather than the less-than-perfect-alternative, given the extreme interest and concern about the problem with prosecuting cops?
On the one hand, the New York Legislature struggles to reach agreement on what day of the week it is. To call it dysfunctional is to insult dysfunction. On the other, it’s struggling under a peculiar leadership gap, with former majority leader of the Assembly, Shelly Silver, and former president of the Senate, Dean Skelos, both under indictment by Southern District of New York United States Attorney, Preet Bharara.
And (shhh, don’t tell anyone) word is Andy Cuomo is soon to join them following his dismantling of the Moreland Commission ten minutes after it started investigating Cuomo’s financial backers.
But there is a bigger, less political, reason why it’s not easy to address the special prosecutor problem in New York, and that’s due to the experience with Maurice Nadjari, who started out gangbusters after being appointed by Governor Hugh Carey to go after official corruption, but who ultimately went rogue, untouchable with power.
Nadjari destroyed a lot of lives, including a good number of judges, by leaking allegations of corruption to the media before indictment, then having his cases fall apart and get overturned. But he knew how to inflict damage, and he used his power mercilessly.
The lesson, that power corrupts, was made abundantly clear by the office of special prosecutor, even if (as some would argue) Nadjari’s downfall wasn’t due to his abuse of power, but the fear of politicians and judges that he would investigate them next and bring their sweet deal to a crashing end. New York pols, never the bravest or toughest stand up guys in the first place, certainly don’t want to create another Nadjari.
Which brings us back to Schneiderman. Can he do the job? Will he do the job? Will he even have the opportunity to do the job? Hopefully, we won’t find out, as that will mean there is another needlessly dead body on the street at the hands of New York’s Finest.