A judge in Ohio has found probable cause to charge a police officer with murder for the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot dead at a playground while holding a toy gun. On Thursday, Judge Ronald Adrine of the Cleveland Municipal Court said there are grounds to prosecute the officers. The ruling came after community leaders in Cleveland took the unusual legal step on Tuesday of appealing directly to the judge to commence prosecution of the officer, saying they were tired of waiting over six months without any progress on the case. We speak to Rice family attorney Walter Madison and Rhonda Williams, the director of the Social Justice Institute at Case Western Reserve University. She’s one of the eight community activists who signed the affidavits in Tamir Rice’s case.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: A judge in Ohio has found probable cause to charge a police officer with murder for the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice last November. On Thursday, Judge Ronald Adrine of Cleveland Municipal Court said there are grounds to prosecute Officer Timothy Loehmann with murder, manslaughter and reckless homicide. The ruling came after community leaders in Cleveland took the unusual legal step Tuesday of appealing directly to the judge to commence prosecution of the officer, saying they were tired of waiting over six months without any progress on the case. In a court filing, the community activists invoked a rare Ohio law that allows citizens to ask judges for charges, bypassing police and prosecutors. Church pastor Jawanza Colvin was one of the eight who signed the affidavit. He told reporters citizens are seeking justice themselves.
JAWANZA COLVIN: We believe that officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback caused the death of Tamir Rice in deeds which were unconscionable, reprehensible and, yes, criminal. So, today, as citizens, we are taking this matter and the matter of justice into our hands, using the tools of democracy as an instrument to ensure that every person, regardless of their race, religion, sex orientation, social class or profession, is ensured that their rights as victims, citizens and human beings are respected in the courts and throughout society.
AMY GOODMAN: Last year, Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun at a playground when police pulled up and fatally shot him within two seconds of their arrival. They failed to provide medical help and tackled Tamir’s 14-year-old sister to the ground as she tried to help him, handcuffed her and put her in the cruiser. Investigators recently submitted their findings in the case.
Last month, Cleveland agreed to increase racial bias training and tough limits on the use of police force, after a federal probe uncovered a pattern of unlawful abuses. Meanwhile, a Cleveland judge recently acquitted a white police officer who fired 49 shots at two unarmed African Americans in their vehicle.
For more, we go directly to Cleveland, Ohio, where we’re joined by Walter Madison. He’s the lawyer for Tamir Rice’s family who filed the affidavits. And we’re joined by Rhonda Williams, the director of the Social Justice Institute at Case Western Reserve University. She’s one of the eight community activists who signed the affidavits in Tamir Rice’s case. She’s also a member of the Collaborative for a Safe, Fair, and Just Cleveland and the author of Concrete Demands: The Search for Black Power in the 20th Century.
Walter Madison and Rhonda Williams, thanks so much for joining us. Walter Madison, let’s start with you. Can you explain what the legal avenue you pursued was, rather than waiting for a prosecutor in the case to bring charges?
WALTER MADISON: Well, it’s a very fundamental concept of citizens participating. And in Ohio, they have that right. And there’s a few other handful of states that also share that citizen participation right. And it’s really, at its core, the most American thing I’ve ever seen in my life. What the government and any person would want is their people to be engaged, be involved with the system. Through that engagement, the citizen can realize and see transparency in the administration of justice. When you have that, what you develop is trust.
And that is the very—that’s at the core of the problem in this country at this moment between African Americans and law enforcement. They don’t trust their system and their authoritarians, therefore there’s no legitimacy in their orders and/or their version of justice. If you can increase that, then you will have people who are more willing to be obedient to law enforcement. And when you have obedient citizens, you can avoid the fusillade of 137 bullets fired into a vehicle at two unarmed citizens and all the other maladies that appear to pop up daily and that’s just a function of lack of trust.
So, the law in Ohio essentially says that any person—any person—with knowledge of a felony can aver those facts in an affidavit and present that directly to a judge. And the judge, an experienced jurist, can evaluate the affidavit, based upon the evidence supplied, and make a determination of probable cause. There’s nothing elaborate. There’s nothing circumvent—there’s no circumvention here. This is not anarchy. This is just law. And this is the—
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what does this mean exactly? Is the officer charged?
WALTER MADISON: Well, what it means is the people have been heard and vindicated and validated by the senior-most judge in Cleveland, Ohio. Judge Adrine has been on the bench since 1981. He’s regarded highly as one of the best municipal court judges in all of Ohio. His record, reputation and service to the community is beyond reproach. He, too, is a public servant. He heard the people. He has offered transparency in his opinion, that you all have now, suggesting to another set of public servants that charges be brought. This is how our system works. And I suppose what we’re witnessing, based upon statements that I’ve read, is a reluctance to simply follow the law. So anyone—if there is any group of individuals being anarchist and un-American, it would appear to be our public servants, i.e. the prosecutor, if they should choose not to obey—again, that keyword “obey”—the judge’s recommendation.
AMY GOODMAN: So, he has made this recommendation. What happens next?
WALTER MADISON: Well, we’re going to wait and see exactly what happens next, because, quite frankly, the world, the international community, is now watching what the Cleveland municipal prosecutors will do. They are public servants, and they serve the people. And the people—when they arrest or make charges for any other citizen, they do so in the name of the people and the peace and dignity of the state of Ohio. Now, when their conduct is outside of the law, we have every right to bring that conduct to the attention of a judge and ask that charges be brought. So we shall see if they respect the law themselves. And we’ll take the appropriate steps at this point. That’s all that, you know, the Cleveland Eight and myself can say at this point. We’ve done nothing but follow the law.
AMY GOODMAN: Rhonda Williams, what was your reaction when you heard the judge’s recommendation?
RHONDA WILLIAMS: We were very pleased. We were very pleased that Judge Adrine found probable cause to bring these charges. The key is, right now we don’t have the charges. We’re asking for the charges. We’re asking for the arrests. We’re asking for the system to move this forward in an expeditious and reasonable way. We’re asking for everyone to have their right in a transparent, accountable court and judicial system. And so we were pleased, but, you know, we’re not giddy. You know, we’re not—we don’t think the struggle is over. We know there is a long road to achieve justice and a sense of justice. And so, we are eagerly awaiting what’s going to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did you discover this rarely used Ohio law?
RHONDA WILLIAMS: I was called. I received a phone call: “Please come hear what—you know, what we have in mind.” It was a call by a colleague of mine, by Pastor Colvin, some other friends, some of the eight. Joe Worthy was a part of this. Pastor Colvin was a part of this—Julia Shearson, Ed Little, Rachel Smith, Pastor Vernon, Bakari Kitwana. We came together, and we listened. And as we learned more, we asked questions: What does this mean? What opportunities does this give us? This is an Ohio state law? This is something that we can use? What kind of latitude does it afford us?
And so, we said, “Yes. We have been waiting more than six months. We want to see this move forward. We want to see some progress. We want to see it in the criminal justice system, with all its flaws. We know the criminal justice system is not perfect. We know that there is racial and other kinds of inequalities embedded in the criminal justice system. But we want to see it move forward. We want to see it in a transparent and accountable way. We want to be able to follow the case. We want to see the case tried in court and not at the grand jury—in the grand jury process, which often happens sometimes.” And so, we were excited to hear about this opportunity to take handle, take control, take some leverage through the law, and be able to apply that law and apply our rights as citizens to speak out and say, “We want to see something happen.”
The critical thing here is citizen engagement, right? Citizen input. And we’ve been told all along in this process, from November to now, and even before, because of the U.S. Department of Justice findings report in Cleveland, which establishes a broader context for this, that community must be engaged, community must provide input. We have to create the space for community to be really involved and invested and have leverage and decision-making power in the way that the criminal justice system operates, in the police reforms, in transformation of culture in relationship to African-American communities and to the police department, and other communities, as well—
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask—
RHONDA WILLIAMS: —and the police department. So—
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask about the record of the officer. Reports have emerged that the officer responsible for Tamir Rice’s death, Officer Timothy Loehmann, was deemed unfit for police service over two years ago when he worked in the suburb of Independence. A letter from a superior specifically criticizes Loehmann’s performance in firearms training, saying, “He could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections, and his handgun performance was dismal,” unquote.
Meanwhile, the other officer, Frank Garmback, the officer who was driving the police cruiser when Tamir Rice was killed, also has a troubled history. Cleveland reportedly paid out $100,000 earlier this year to a city resident named Tamela Eaton to settle an excessive force lawsuit brought against Officer Garmback. The settlement stemmed from a 2010 confrontation in which Eaton said Garmback, quote, “rushed (her) and placed her in a chokehold, tackled her to the ground, twisted her wrist and began hitting her body.”
Walter Madison, now, Officer Garmback was not—the judge did not recommend him—a charge against him, is that right? Only against Officer Loehmann, the man who pulled the trigger on Tamir Rice?
WALTER MADISON: No, that’s not correct. There are two recommendations for arrest for Mr. Garmback for negligent homicide as well as dereliction of duty. And it’s interesting you point out their records, because we’ve seen and heard a lot of victim blaming of a 12-year-old child. And it’s quite, quite puzzling to me, because you have to—a 12-year-old can only see the world through its eyes. And, you know, I hardly doubt a 12-year-old can appreciate the danger of a toy gun. You know, those are adult considerations, with adult repercussions. So, the more fair criticism would lie with these officers, who receive hundreds of hours of training. They’re adults. They’re seasoned police veterans. They should have the experience and emotional intelligence to understand the gait, the behavior, the posture of a child—in particular, outside of a recreation center that weekly has Saturday morning programming for adolescent children. Not even teenagers, they’re adolescent children. So that’s just, you know, a lack of concern and engagement by the officers in that particular community, which ultimately comes right back to the relationship building—
RHONDA WILLIAMS: Right.
WALTER MADISON: —and the lack of trust. You know, there are a number of contextual clues that would have suggested that this was just a 12-year-old boy.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is happening with Tamir Rice’s family right now, his 14-year-old sister, his mother? Where are they living? How are they being taken care of?
WALTER MADISON: Mother is stable at the moment. Naturally, Tamir’s sister is having her struggles, as any sibling would, having watched—and the separation anxiety—watched her brother die, helplessly, with a window seat. Tamir has a father. It’s Father’s Day season. This is his first Father’s Day without his firstborn son. This is—this was the first Mother’s Day without her baby boy. So, you can only imagine what it—and how they feel about having to put away a 12-year-old child. Words can’t begin to explain that, you know? And I hear the concern and the sentiment of officers all over—good officers, you know, they’re concerned about the general characterization of them all being bad officers.
RHONDA WILLIAMS: Right.
WALTER MADISON: I do empathize with them, but I don’t think for a moment their pain matches that of a parent.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both so much for being with us, Walter Madison, lawyer for Tamir Rice’s family, and Rhonda Williams, director of the Social Justice Institute at Case Western Reserve University, one of the eight community activists who signed the affidavit in Tamir Rice’s case.
This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a moment. What happens when a prisoner goes from complete solitary to complete freedom? Stay with us.