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Q&A: Why The Justice Department Is Abandoning The Tamir Rice Investigation

A report from The New York Times says the U.S. Justice Department has effectively shut down the investigation into the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed by Cleveland police near the Cuddell Recreation Center in 2014. The Times further reports the department has not officially closed the case, adding further confusion.

New York Times reporter Katie Benner helped break the story and she joined host Glenn Forbes on All Things Considered Friday.

How and when did this development get on your radar and just tell us, what happened from there?

So as we say in this story, there's a lawyer who's working with a whistleblower within the Department of Justice who left recently, who was concerned about the handling of the Tamir Rice case. And what was outlined, what we found for the reporting, speaking with current and former officials and lawyers there at the Justice Department, is that within the department's civil rights division, they strongly felt that there was enough information available to convene a grand jury so that they could see whether or not there could be charges brought against the officers.

There's been a lot of silence around this case, as I mentioned in the open here, the case has not officially been closed. U.S. attorney for Northern Ohio Justin Herdman would not comment to us here at ideastream, nor the City of Cleveland. Obviously, this very controversial case. But, Katie, do you have any other insight as to why this is not only languishing, but some of these questions are being met with silence?

Yes, of course. You know, I think that we need to go back in time a little bit and take a look at the case. It stagnated even in the final year of the Obama administration, according to people who we spoke with, in part because it is extremely difficult under current federal law for the Civil Rights Division to bring a federal civil rights charge in a case like this.

So the department felt it had already obtained a consent decree to overhaul the Cleveland Police Department. They thought that was a really big step that happened. Those wheels were motion before Rice was killed and they really felt that this was going to be a very difficult case. So there was already some stagnation on the case. And then Donald Trump was elected.

Once that happened, you see career prosecutors within the department in 2017 decide that they really want to more aggressively gather evidence. They want to breathe new life into this case. And they decided to look at it at a very specific angle as to whether or not Officer Loehmann and his partner gave statements that were possibly inaccurate in some of the interviews around the investigation. And if that were the case, the department kind of leveraged those inaccurate statements to build toward charges.

So one way they would do that is perhaps look into the inaccuracies and see if there was a way to maybe flip one officer or try to leverage one against the other. We see this a lot in cases that the Justice Deparment works on. It's not an uncommon tactic. And they felt that they had enough evidence to start building in that direction. So in mid-2017, you see two of these Justice Department prosecutors, they wrote a memo of about 20 pages analyzing the case and they asked permission to open a grand jury investigation. They do need permission for this from higher ups and they are met with silence and then they try again. You know, usually these things are approved overnight or pretty quickly. So then they try it again in the fall of 2018. And again, they get no response. Eventually, last year, they are told that the case is probably going to wind down because the statute of limitations on that kind of obstruction charge would have expired in November of last year.

So it's all but closed. And they're told a declination letter is going to be written, which would officially close it, which would also necessitate telling the family. And that is never done. 

What do we know when that letter may come out, Katie? I mean, why not officially file the paperwork to close the case? It sounds like there is not a chance that the Justice Department could still act against Officer Loehmann.

Well, with the statute of limitations expired on the obstruction charge, it's extraordinarily unlikely. The department itself, officials, current officials in the department, they said many, many times, you know, this is not official. At the same time, with that statute of limitations being run out, it's hard to know what else could be done.

Keep in mind that it is not only under this administration, but many administrations when these when these sensitive cases come up. Nobody really wants to be responsible for saying no. Nobody wants to take that on themselves. You know, in the Eric Garner case, that was another case that languished back and forth as people decided what to do. And it was Bill Barr who came in and finally said, no, we're not going to bring charges. So you already had that sensitivity.

And then what some of the people who we spoke with pointed out – now, they're not saying this with definitive knowledge of proceedings inside the department – but what they pointed out was by May of this year, you saw the country become extraordinarily heated over questions about police violence against Black Americans. We had George Floyd and then we had the shooting in Kenosha. So it was already a tinderbox in the country. And then it was a question of when would be the right time to send what would be a really controversial declination letter and make that very controversial phone call to the Rice family.

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