Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman is not convening a grand jury in the deadly police shooting of Thurman Blevins, he said in an interview Wednesday.
Freeman said that his office is still gathering evidence and will determine whether the two police officers who shot and killed Blevins in a north Minneapolis alley last month should face criminal charges in the 31-year-old’s death — rather than a grand jury.
Grand juries offer two functions in such cases: They come with subpoena power, which can compel crucial testimony to help build a case, and they decide whether there’s probable cause to file criminal charges. “I didn’t have to call an investigative grand jury, and I will not call a decision-making grand jury,” Freeman said of the Blevins case. “I will make that decision. That’s my job.”
Minnesota prosecutors are required to summon a grand jury when seeking a life sentence for felony crimes, though otherwise they have the ability to decide when to use them on a case-by-case basis. For police shootings, the choice has become increasingly controversial; Critics call them problematic since their proceedings are confidential at a time when the public needs greater transparency into the process of deciding if or when police officers should be using excessive force. Supporters of the grand jury process say that involving a group of citizens in the charging decision adds a layer of fairness. California was the first state to ban them in police-involved shootings, in 2015.
For Freeman, the decision became especially contentious after the death of 24-year-old Jamar Clark at the hands of Minneapolis police in November 2015. Citing the public’s “evolving” standards at the time, Freeman decided not to use one in the Clark case.
“The problem is, the grand jury process by its nature is secretive,” he said Wednesday, pointing to how the identities of the 23 jurors remain out of the public’s eye as well as any evidence they review. “I felt that was inadequate; people in the community felt it was inadequate.”
Freeman decided not to charge the two Minneapolis police officers in Clark’s killing. But a 2016 pledge to forgo the grand jury process in all officer-involved shootings didn’t last long. After officers involved in the fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond last July refused to talk to prosecutors and share what they knew, Freeman said, “My only recourse was to go call them before a grand jury, which I did, and we learned a lot of stuff.”
Ramsey County attorney John Choi didn’t use a grand jury to bring a case against St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who shot and killed 32-year-old Philando Castile during a traffic stop in July 2016. Choi alone decided to charge Yanez with second-degree manslaughter and endangering safety by discharging a firearm, making him the first police officer charged with killing someone in the state’s modern history. A jury later acquitted Yanez of all charges.
Blevins was shot and killed by MPD officers Ryan Kelly and Justin Schmidt in Minneapolis’ Camden neighborhood in late June. The two officers were responding to a call that a man was firing a handgun in the area, authorities said, and detectives found a gun at the scene. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) is investigating the case, and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said he is working to release footage from body cameras the officers were wearing.
A timeline for a decision on whether Schmidt or Kelly face criminal charges is unclear; Freeman couldn’t discuss specifics of the case. Both officers are on paid administrative leave, pending the outcome of the case, according to the BCA. “Police are cooperating this time, to their credit,” Freeman said.