Lessons Learned From Cleveland: The Tamir Rice Shift

There was no question that the Cleveland grand jury would return no indictments against Police Officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback for the murder of Tamir Rice.  And it didn’t.  The spin machine went into overdrive that day, with cop and prosecution apologists explaining what a terrible tragedy it was, but that it couldn’t be helped.

The lawyers representing Tamir’s family had done everything possible to create countervailing pressure during the course of the grand jury show, but they knew it would amount to nothing.  And afterward, there were heart-rending emotional appeals of the wrongfulness of the grand jury’s determination that were only slightly more illuminating than the cop swill.

And yet, there are worthwhile lessons to be learned from this debacle.  Foremost is that the public has been steadfast in holding to its ignorance of the mechanics and purpose of the grand jury.  The lies it’s been fed have worked to a shocking extent, using the rhetoric of transparency and fairness, words that are perpetually appealing to the American psyche, to confuse and mislead. 

The prosecution trilogy of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and now Tamir Rice have been a learning experience for the public and prosecution alike; the former has learned to embrace a lie it wants to hear about the criminal process that allows it to maintain a sufficient level of comfort that it “tries” to do the things that people believe it should do.

Wrapping up a very limited process in a bow that most people find sufficiently attractive is enough to smooth over the rough edges of discomfort.  Granted, it doesn’t take much to fool Americans, but they still need something to reinforce the adage that it may not be perfect but it’s the best there is.  We want to believe this is true, and we will seize upon the soothing words that allow us to bask in our ignorance and sleep at night.

Prosecutors have also grown more sophisticated in their use of this dog and pony show. They’ve come to appreciate that using the word “tragedy” as often as possible blunts the edge of criticism.  While there was no shortage of blame directed at Tamir Rice, at his parents, at his “kind,” it was softened by the pervasive use of emotional rhetoric.  A terrible outcome, simply awful, but it couldn’t be helped.

The grand jury was never meant to be a trial, was never intended to prove guilt or innocence.  But people aren’t particularly interested in what they perceive to be the hypertechnical aspects of legal process.  They want outcome, and they want it in easily digestible bits.  The concept of a grand jury determining whether there exists sufficient evidence to establish probable cause to proceed to prosecution on a felony charge is unfulfilling.  That it’s similarly unfulfilling when it’s done a thousand times a day in cases that fail to attract this level of interest is of no moment; the tree makes no sound when it falls in the forest if there is no one interested in hearing it.

Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty also learned that by putting out press releases of “experts” to disprove the existence of probable cause which he is putatively before the grand jury to prove, he can feed the ignorance with excuses.  The message is twofold, and remarkably clear: First, people adore experts. Call someone an expert and it relieves people of the responsibility of being knowledgeable and, more importantly, thinking about whether the substance of the experts’ claims are valid.

Second, people still harbor an inexplicable abiding faith in people with official titles and ascribed credibility.  The DA’s experts are more valid than the Rice family’s experts.  Not because they are more qualified, educated, knowledgeable or inherently credible, but because they were the experts chosen by the DA.  The family’s experts are easily dismissed, as the family’s motives are suspect and conflicted. Of course the family’s experts are going to say that this was a wrongful killing.  Yet, somehow the prosecution’s experts are cleaner, less self-serving, sweeter smelling.

In an objective, head-to-head, comparison, the experts used by the family were far more credible than the badge-bunnies used by McGinty. There is an industry of cop experts who will use whatever tools they can to explain why no cop shooting is unjustified, and McGinty took advantage of this. They created abject falsehoods in the narrative, with there now being discussions of how Loehmann gave not one, not two, but three commands to Tamir Rice before shooting. That Tamir was drawing his toy gun on an officer with a real gun, thus leaving Loehmann with no option but to kill or be killed.

These are, as reflected in the video and the sound analysis of the family’s expert, nonsensical claims. There was no possibility that these claims were true, and yet people, a great many people, will and do believe them.  The lesson is that the prosecution’s money spent on experts to spew absurd claims is money well spent, as the public is eager to believe that the same police they trust to save them when they need them would never leap out of a car and shoot down a kid in cold blood.

There is more than enough blame to spread around here, and that includes the blame on us for being the fools the police and prosecution need us to be.  We were tested, and we failed.

No, the people did not kill Tamir Rice. Timothy Loehmann did that, and without legal justification.  But we facilitated it, enabled the prosecution to whitewash it. We are accomplices after the fact to national ignorance that allows the police and prosecution to kill with impunity. We are treated like children, like idiots, to be played by every tug at our heartstrings, no matter who’s doing the tugging.  And that’s our shame, that we just can’t find the fortitude to think.

Epilogue:  Had the grand jury indicted Loehmann and Garmback, they would likely have been acquitted at trial because of the application of the rule of Graham v. Connor, the “reasonable cop rule.”  While the crime of murder makes no exception for a police officer, the de facto bar of justification for a police officer stemming from this unworkable rule provides a degree of latitude to cops that is nearly insurmountable.

So why not indict and let the cops be acquitted after trial?  Because then there would be real transparency, and it would make for a public spectacle of the brutal reality that can’t be hidden by a pretty bow of empty rhetoric.

5 thoughts on “Lessons Learned From Cleveland: The Tamir Rice Shift

  1. Greg Prickett

    Sorry Scott, but you’re wrong here, for reasons that I’ve stated at F/L and of which you are aware. Indicting Loehmann serves no purpose.

    In the other two cases you cite, only one offers the support you desire. While I agree that Pantaleo should have been tried for Garner’s death, I don’t believe that is the case for Wilson. There was no justification for Garner to be choked out with an arm bar chokehold, nor for the blatant BS following the video release. Brown got shot because he had committed a strong-arm robbery and attacked a police officer.

    There are much clearer cases than Brown and Rice. Focus on those, because here you are tilting at windmills.

    Focus on the cases like Robertson in California, or Bettie Jones in Chicago, or Clark in Minnesota. That’s where we’ll make progress with the public. That’s where we’ll be able to turn the tide, not the Browns nor the Rices.

    1. SHG Post author

      There’s a process by which these decisions are supposed to be legitimately made. If McGinty believed, as is within his authority as district attorney, that Loehmann should not be indicted, then his duty was to not present the case to the grand jury and take the responsibility for his exercise of prosecutorial discretion. What he could not ethically do is put on a sham grand jury, which is what happened here.

      Certainly, he could have obtained an indictment of Loehmann had he chosen to do so. In an hour. As would have been the case for anyone who killed another human being, but didn’t wear a shield. And then the question of whether Loehmann had committed a homicide would be the subject of a trial, played out in the open for all to see. As I noted in the post, I doubt Loehmann would have been convicted given the state of the law. I understand you see the sole issue as what was Loehmann looking at in that split second when he pulled the trigger. I see the lies, that Tamir was drawing a gun, that Loehmann issued three commands in the less than two second between he leaping out of the car and killing Tamir, that there was, in fact, an imminent threat to Loehmann’s life rather than a potential threat which he pre-emptively ended by killing Tamir before there was an opportunity to determine what he was going to do.

      But all of this would be fleshed out at trial. Except there will be no trial, because McGinty sandbagged his fake grand jury presentment. We can focus on all these cases, but there is no free pass on what happened here. It was a disagrace all around.

      1. Greg Prickett

        I agree that McGinty was using the GJ process as political cover, and if he had any cajones, would have not presented the case to begin with. Of course, that’s why he’s a politician and why I’m not.

        I don’t think that there is a snowball’s chance that Loehmann would be convicted, based on the current state of the law.

        I believe that it was preventable, but it was preventable by Garmback, not Loehmann. It’s a civil matter, not a criminal one.

        1. Jason Peterson

          By “current state of the law”, are you referring to SCOTUS edict.
          Or the fact that McGinty and his minions would be acting as a second defense team, if this case actually went to trial?

  2. Jason Peterson

    It might help if reporters would stop saying that the grand jury “acquitted” the officers.

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