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Will Criminal Justice Reform Movement Impact The Prosecutor’s Race?

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien giving closing arguments in the case of Quentin Smith, who killed two Westerville Police officers, on Oct. 31, 2019.
Fred Squillante
Pool/Columbus Dispatch

The longest-serving prosecutor in Franklin County’s history, Republican Ron O’Brien, has a challenger for his seat this election, Democratic candidate Gary Tyack. Activists are looking at the prosecutor’s office as another opportunity for criminal justice reforms.

Reverend Derrick Holmes greeted the candidates for Franklin County Prosecutor on a Zoom town hall hosted by New Salem Baptist Church last week. They fielded questions on race and criminal justice reform like this one from activist Adrienne Hood.

"My question is, in what ways would you ensure that law enforcement officers are held accountable for using excessive force, or engaging in misconduct?" Hood said. 

It’s not often that Prosecutor Ron O’Brien has this type of event. In his two dozen years in office, he’s only been challenged a handful of times. In 2016, now-Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein was O’Brien’s first opponent in 16 years. Now, former 10th District Court of Appeals Judge Gary Tyack hopes to unseat him. 

"Mr. O’Brien has been there for over 20 years," Gary Tyack said on the Zoom candidate's forum. "He has never once indicted a white police officer for any crime where an officer has shot somebody in the neighborhood, white or Black."

The only Columbus Police officers indicted for a shooting under O’Brien’s tenure was Andrew Mitchell, who is Black. But O’Brien doesn’t issue indictments – that is up to members of the grand jury, a nine person panel of citizens.

"We have had a policy, and actually it preceded my time as prosecutor, that all cases involving police shooting deaths or in custody deaths that weren’t the result of a shooting, that those cases would be automatically presented to the grand jury," O'Brien says. 

But during his time as prosecutor, O’Brien says his office has made other changes on how it handles cases involving police officers.

"Back in June I talked to the attorney general Dave Yost and have set a new policy that in the future we will not handle those police shooting cases," he says. Instead, there will be an outside prosecutor to ensure the process is unbiased.

But activist Jasmine Ayers says those changes are too little too late. O’Brien, a Republican prosecutor in a Democratic county, is endorsed by the police union. She says he is not progressive enough to do the job when it comes to the police department or other race-related cases.

"There’s just an entire swath of people in Franklin County that seem to be absolutely off limits for Ron O’Brien," Ayers says. "And that’s just not okay. He has to represent all of us, and a large section of Franklin County are Black people who care about criminal justice reform." 

She believes Tyack would make those changes.

Retired judge Gary Tyack
Credit Courtesy of the Tyack campaign
Retired Judge Gary Tyack is the Democratic candidate for Franklin County Prosecutor.

But O’Brien defends his record, saying regardless of race or someone’s job position, he prosecutes cases based on evidence.

"It’s absolute nonsense by partisans who say I give a pass to police officers, because I prosecute police officers whenever they violate the law and they’re held to the same standards as anybody else," O'Brien says.

Tyack is a Columbus City Schools graduate who practiced law and worked as an appeals court judge for decades. But O’Brien says he doesn’t have enough prosecutorial experience.

"He has been a judge, he has been a criminal defense attorney, but if we’re looking at the idea we’re hiring someone as the prosecutor by deciding to vote for them, do you really want to see someone in that position who has never prosecuted a criminal case in their lives?" O'Brien asks. 

During his campaign, Tyack suffered a stroke. He says it has impacted his right side, but not his brain.

"I’m getting around, I have three more months until the term starts and I’m in rehabilitation," Tyack says. "Each day my strength, and my agility gets better. I’m ready to serve now but certainly within three months I’ll be pretty much full strength."

Whoever wins the race will be leading the office as the city grapples with criminal justice reforms and tension between the police and the community.