Ramsey County Attorney John Choi has taken the rare step of hiring an outside attorney to help with deciding if police officers who killed Philando Castile at a traffic stop should be prosecuted. Choi says Hamline Law Dean is the special prosecutor in the case, a title that the Minneapolis NAACP says is “misleading” and a case of Choi “trying to have it both ways–retaining his authority over the case while being endorsed by a ‘special prosecutor’.”
The shooting sparked protests in Minnesota and across the country and prompted Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton to say Castile would still be alive if he were white.
Lewis will work with a team of several others in the Ramsey County Attorney’s office on the case which is still under investigation by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). Choi did not know when the BCA would turn the case over to his office, but noted it took about 13 weeks for the BCA to send the Jamar Clark case to the Hennepin County Attorney.
Video of entire news conference & reaction
Video above: Choi and Lewis answer questions from the press.
Clark, who like Castile was also black, was shot and killed by Minneapolis police officers. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman decided not to send the case to a grand jury. Community activists have complained that grand juries have rarely, if ever, decided that police officers should be put on trial. Freeman decided the officers in the Clark case should not be prosecuted. Choi faces a similar choice — grand jury or making the decision himself.
It’s because the decision still rests with Choi that NAACP Minneapolis President Nekima Levy-Pounds says calling Lewis a “special prosecutor” is misleading. “The decision to simply add an attorney to the team, misleadingly describing him as a special prosecutor, unfortunately flies in the face of Mr. Choi’s stated goals of ensuring the absolute integrity of this case,” said Levy-Pounds in a press release posted to Facebook. “Don Lewis’ role and authority are ambiguous and unclear rather than transparent. Additionally, we have serious concerns about Mr. Lewis’ willingness to investigate this case fairly. Mr. Lewis has an extensive history of favoring those in power, whether law enforcement accused of brutality, a law school over a professor who advocates police reform, city officials over parents of children killed in a landslide, or many other issues.
Levy-Pounds told The UpTake that Choi was “hiding behind a black attorney,” which was a “complicating factor” since the public could misconstrue that as an “indication of fairness.”
“It’s not complicating to me,” said Levy-Pounds.
She says a key recommendation from the recent President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing was to use “external and independent prosecutors in cases of police use of force resulting in death.” She says Lewis is not independent. A sentiment echoed by Jason Sole, Chair of the Criminal Justice Reform Committee of the Minneapolis NAACP.
“It is no coincidence that Don Lewis was chosen in light of the fact that he was previously retained by the Minneapolis Police Department to investigate allegations of excessive force and found no wrongdoing on the part of the officers,” said Sole in a press release. “We expect the Ramsey County Attorney to choose a special prosecutor that inspires faith in the justice system or to make the decision completely on his own.”
A spokesman for Choi’s office defended the use of the title “special prosecutor” saying nobody has an absolute claim to define the term. Choi’s office confirms that he does have the option of transferring the case to an independent special prosecutor. He could request that the case be transferred to Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson who could then appoint a Special Assistant Attorney General to prosecute the case. Governor Mark Dayton also has the authority to transfer the case to the attorney general. Earlier this month the Minnesota ACLU called upon Dayton, Swanson and Choi to do just that.
A press release from Choi’s office described Lewis as “a St. Paul native and seasoned veteran prosecutor who spent nearly a decade working for the U.S. Department of Justice handling civil rights matters and as a federal criminal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minneapolis.”
Choi says Lewis will “be an integral member of our team who will review this case with me and be substantially involved in our decision to charge, decline or present the BCA investigation to a Grand Jury.”
A press release from Choi’s office listed the “key qualities” he was looking for in a special prosecutor.
§ doesn’t have any connection to law enforcement interests in Ramsey County;
§ doesn’t have any personal or professional connection to this case, who has not publicly weighed in on any aspects of it, and who can remain fair and impartial;
§ has extensive legal experience and background, who fundamentally understands the complex challenges ahead of us and who will help ensure faithful adherence to the law in the pursuit of justice; and
§ is competent, fair and ethical, who will bring fresh eyes and an independent perspective to our work.