County Attorney Mike Freeman won’t use grand jury in Jamar Clark case

Michaela Day stands with other demonstrators in County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office Feb. 12, holding a sign that says “#No Grand Jury" in the Jamar Clark shooting case. File photo

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced Wednesday that he will not use a grand jury in the Jamar Clark case or in future police shooting cases in Hennepin County — a victory for Clark’s family and many activists who have been calling on Freeman to make that decision.

Clark, a 24-year-old black man, was fatally shot by police on Nov. 15 in North Minneapolis. The state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigated the shooting and turned over its findings to the county attorney’s office in mid-February for review.

Grand juries are routinely used in police shooting cases in the state and are up to the discretion of each county attorney. The 23-member jury is a fact finder and determines if there is probable cause to indict or charge an individual with a crime. Its proceedings are private, which has prompted many to criticize them for lack of transparency.

“Moreover, in most jurisdictions throughout the U.S., grand juries have also served in these cases, although there is a growing discussion that grand juries may no longer serve the present evolving standards of justice, accountability and transparency,” Freeman wrote in a statement.

He said he started a personal review of whether to use grand juries in police shooting cases 16 months ago and had tentatively set a news conference for the Monday after Thanksgiving last year to discuss a new system for handling the cases, but Clark’s shooting death prompted him to hold off on the announcement. Since then, he’s had more discussions with the community about grand juries.

Grand juries have been used in Hennepin County for police shooting cases for at least 40 years, he said.

“I concluded that the accountability and transparency limitations of a grand jury are too high a hurdle to overcome,” he said. “So, at this point in time, and in a democracy where we continually strive to make our systems fairer, more just and more accountable, we in Hennepin County will not use the grand jury in the Jamar Clark case.”

He said he will make the “factual determination whether there is sufficient evidence to support a criminal charge against the police officers in the tragic death of Jamar Clark.”

The FBI is also conducting an investigation into Clark’s shooting death. He was shot during an altercation with police on the 1600 block of Plymouth Avenue North around 12:45 a.m. on Nov. 15. Police say he was interfering with paramedics treating an assault victim and not handcuffed at the time. Witnesses, however, said he was handcuffed.

Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau said she respects that Freeman had a challenging decision to make. “The legal standards and thresholds remain the same, whether this case is looked at by a grand jury or reviewed by the County Attorney,” she said. 

Anthony Newby, executive director of North Minneapolis-based Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, said the decision reflects the power of community organizing.

“We thank County Attorney Freeman for taking this important step toward police accountability,” Newby said. “In cities across the Midwest, black-led organizing is leading a movement for more accountability for officer-involved shootings. This week, Chicago and Cleveland voted out county attorneys who’ve failed to deliver justice for their communities while over policing them. Ferguson, Mo., has accepted important changes from the Department of Justice. Freeman’s decision not to use a grand jury in Minneapolis is the latest example of a shift in power in the Midwest. Organizing works.”

Congressman Keith Ellison, a resident of North Minneapolis, has also been outspoken in advocating against using a grand jury in Clark’s case. 

“This is a victory for transparency,” he said. “Large sections of our community doubt that the grand jury system can yield a fair outcome, and their secretive nature worsens the already strained relations between police and the community they serve. Wherever the facts and law lead in this case, making the prosecution decision in the public light will increase community confidence. ”

State Rep. Raymond Dehn (DFL-59B) called Freeman’s decision an “important step forward for justice in Minnesota.” 

“The tragic shooting and death of Jamar Clark has brought much needed attention to the flaws in our criminal justice system. Due to the accountability and transparency issues involved, Hennepin County took the bold step of announcing that they will not use a grand jury in the Jamar Clark case, nor will they use them to determine if charges are warranted in any police shootings going forward,” he said. “… Not using the grand jury system to determine charges in police shootings makes justice for Jamar, and others who are shot by police, possible.”