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Do Special Prosecutors Help Restore Public Trust In Grand Juries?

Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has signed an executive order appointing the state's Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, as a special prosecutor for one year to investigate cases where unarmed civilians are killed by police officers, or where there is a question as to whether or not the civilian was armed and dangerous.

Cuomo created the position following a series of deadly encounters between unarmed black men and the police last year. A year ago, Eric Garner died during a confrontation with police in Staten Island. Garner was unarmed, and a police officer used a choke hold to restrain him. A grand jury declined to indict the officer.

The decision led to protests and calls for reforming the justice system. Bennett Gershman is a professor at Pace University Law School, a former prosecutor with the Manhattan District Attorney's office, and he served as a special state prosecutor investigating corruption in the judicial system.


Is the appointment of a special prosecutor a good idea?

GERSHMAN: Yes. It's a very good idea. No one is questioning the good faith and the expertise and the commitment to justice of any prosecutors in the state. The problem is when you're dealing with police officers who engage in killings of unarmed civilians and the fact that grand juries do not indict these police officers, there is the perception on the part of much of the public, I believe, that because prosecutors are so close to the police and work with them everyday they might be less willing to indict police officers for these deadly encounters. Whether that's right or wrong, there is the question of the public's perception that justice isn't being done in these cases, that police officers are getting off, and this leads to a lack of confidence and a lack of trust.

What does a special prosecutor do?

The prosecutor is the legal advisor in the grand jury. The prosecutor does instruct the jury on the law and recommend charges. That's how a grand jury works in New York state. The attorney general and his staff will do exactly that if they believe the case warrants grand jury action.

Do you expect New York Attorney General Eric Schniederman to be facing any unusual or special challenges as he proceeds as special prosecutor?

I don't expect unusual challenges here. There may very well be challenges by the police officer in the event that the police officer happens to be indicted, the police officer may challenge the jurisdiction of the Attorney General, saying the executive order by the Governor was invalid. You know lawyers can be creative here.

We hope that everything will be transparent. That's the idea here. In the past when you're dealing with the Staten Island grand jury and the Ferguson grand jury, it's not clear what happened. Why did the grand jury not indict? In this case when you're dealing with the Attorney General who doesn't really have a vested interest in the case. He doesn't have a stake in the action, he's not close to the police. It seems to me that in this case, the public will likely trust the action of the grand jury, what ever that action happens to be.

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.
Ann is an editor and senior content producer with WSHU, including the founding producer of the weekly talk show, The Full Story.
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