By: Robert (Bob) Bianchi, Esq.
I had the pleasure of discussing the Sandra Bland case with MSNBC Chief Legal Correspondent, Ari Melber.
Sandra Bland was the woman taken into police custody in Texas over a motor vehicle issue that escalated into her arrest.
While housed in the county jail, government officials failed to follow policies to check on inmates at various time intervals to ensure they are safe. She died, under what authorities are stating was a probable suicide. The case garnered national media attention.
The prosecutor in the case presented the case to the Grand Jury which returned a “No Bill” which means they found no criminal wrongdoing by jail officials in her death. This has again sparked outrage, especially from the minority community.
Ari brought up some interesting questions about the process, especially as the prosecutor stated that he felt Ms. Bland died of a suicide. So, why present the case to the Grand Jury if the prosecutor felt that there was no crime committed?
As a former head NJ County Prosecutor, I investigated many cases of deaths occurring in police custody. While I agree that innocent police officers should not stand trial just because of public outcry, I also understand that it is important that the community have confidence that such cases are investigated aggressively and that the citizens make the call, not just a few people that are associated with law enforcement – – like prosecutors.
Had an indictment issued that the prosecutor did not feel they would be able to prove, or were not accurate, then they have the power, and in fact, ethical obligation, to dismiss that case. So, there are safety mechanisms should a Grand Jury get it wrong. But before doing so, the prosecutor will have to show the public very specifically why such a decision to dismiss was made.
While police officers do not like being investigated when they feel they did nothing wrong, it is also important that the public has confidence there is no cover-up. With the Grand Jury process, it is the citizens that make the call, not a sole prosecutor. There is a record of evidence presented so that it can later be reviewed to ensure that all important evidence was fairly presented. It is a sort of check and balance in the system.
More importantly, other government agencies like the Attorney General of the State, or the US Attorney’s Office can review the case and determine if the presentation was fair and impartial, as opposed to a cover-up.
When it comes to the death of a citizen in police custody, there is a paramount need to ensure that the police are not at fault legally. Sometimes this means that police officers who act admirably will have to fear to go through this process until all the evidence can be properly vetted and presented to a Grand Jury.
Check out the appearance. It dispels a lot of misinformation about the role and purpose of the Grand Jury System, and how it operates.