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Cincinnati Grand Jury Indicts Officer on Two Counts in Shooting on Unarmed African-American

Aired May 7, 2001 - 18:02   ET


FRANK SESNO, CNN ANCHOR: When prosecutors in Cincinnati announce the results of that grand jury probe, we will carry it live. We're expecting it in just a couple of minutes. At issue: the shooting of an unarmed African-American man by a white police officer; the shooting which prompted those violent protests in the city last month.

CNN national correspondent Bob Franken is outside police headquarters in Cincinnati just now. Bob, set the stage for us.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, fist of all, at police headquarters, they're making extensive preparations in case there is an adverse reaction to an announcement from the Hamilton County prosecutor Mike Allen that we're expecting in less than a minute in the case of Stephen Roach.

Roach is the police officer, the Cincinnati police officer, who exactly a month ago shot and killed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas. Thomas was unarmed, although Roach says that he believed that he was reaching for a gun. It was during a chase. It turns out that Timothy Thomas only had some misdemeanor warrants that were pending against him.

The grand jury is investigating. In addition to the announcement here, the Justice Department in Washington announced today that there will be a full formal patterns and practices of discrimination investigation against the Cincinnati police department. That announcement was timed, and now we're going to go to the news conference and Mike Allen.

MIKE ALLEN, HAMILTON COUNTRY PROSECUTOR: Thank you all very much for coming. My office has completed its presentation of evidence to the grand jury regarding the death of Timothy Thomas. While the law prohibits me from disclosing specifics about the evidence presented to the grand jury, I can say the presentation was very thorough and fair.

Normally, a grand jury hears 10 to 20 case a day with one or two witnesses supplying the testimony or one police officer summarizing the evidence in that case. Such an expedited process is necessary for the grand jury to handle the approximately 10,000 cases presented to them each year.

On the one hand, the Timothy Thomas case was handled like any other case. One of the two sitting grand juries heard the case along with dozens of others during their three-week jury duty. They heard testimony and they were given the applicable law and the possible crimes committed in the death of Timothy Thomas.

At the same time, we would be ignoring reality to treat this case like any other case. Public reaction to the death of Mr. Thomas has fractured our community and led to violence and unrest. Some have even questioned whether the criminal justice system would fairly and completely investigate the death of Mr. Thomas.

My office was therefore committed to do everything in its power to reassure the people of Cincinnati and Hamilton County that the investigation was exhaustive, and the presentation to the grand jury was thorough and fair. We must treat the merits of this case no differently than any other, but I recognize that in the extraordinary atmosphere, we must leave no doubt about the process.

The grand jury was presented with all of the evidence in a manner normally reserved for trials. The publicly known and reported facts are these: Mr. Thomas ignored the orders to stop of several police officers in the area of Vine and Republic Streets during a foot pursuit in the early morning hours of April 7, 2001. A number of witnesses indicated that Mr. Thomas was wearing oversized pants and that has hands were at his waist area, holding his pants up as he ran.

Only information known to officers pursuing Mr. Thomas, including Officer Stephen Roach, was a physical description that he was wanted on 14 arrest warrants, and that he continued to avoid arrest during the pursuit. This is the scenario that confronted Officer Roach as he and Mr. Thomas met in the darkened, litter-strewn alley at 2:14 in the morning on April 7, 2001.

In this case, rather than hearing a summary of the evidence, the grand jury heard from 20 witnesses. These witnesses included the mother of Timothy Thomas, police officers on the scene on the night of Mr. Thomas' death and officers involved in the investigation. The grand jury heard from civilians who witnessed part of the events that took place. They heard the testimony of the coroner who performed the autopsy of Mr. Thomas, and the firearms' expert who examined the clothing of Mr. Thomas and the weapon which caused his death.

The grand jury viewed aerial and ground-level photographs of the scene and several diagrams of the area involved in the chase and apprehension of Timothy Thomas. They viewed the tapes from police cruisers equipped with cameras which recorded some events of that evening. They listened to police communication tapes of the radio broadcast of the officers involved in the pursuit of Mr. Thomas, and heard the taped statements Officer Stephen Roach gave as described for homicide investigators the events of that evening.

The grand jury also physically examined the clothing of Mr. Thomas and the firearm of Stephen Roach, used in the shooting. Finally, they heard testimony on the operation of the 9 millimeter weapon assigned to Stephen Roach, and the training that Cincinnati police officers go through in the use of the firearms.

At the conclusion of the evidence, the grand jury was given the various charges available to them when an individual, in this case, Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach, takes the life of the other, in this case, Timothy Thomas. As has been previously reported in the press, the potential charges include aggravated murder, murder, manslaughter, reckless homicide, and negligent homicide. Obviously, the grand jury also has the option of returning a no bill.

Without going into the content of the two statements police officer Roach gave the homicide investigators, the grand jury was also given the option of a charge of obstructing official business based on discrepancies in these two statements.

A lot of people in the community have expressed their opinions as to whether or not Stephen Roach should be charged with any crime, and if so, opinions vary widely as to what charge would be appropriate. It's very important to point out that none of these people had the opportunity to hear all of the facts surrounding this tragic incident.

The grand jury that heard this case did have such an opportunity. But something even more important distinguishes the grand jury who heard this case from those who have spoken the loudest about what should happen. I want to take into account at this point the secrecy of the grand jury proceedings and describing of what happened.

I can tell you that the grand jury deliberated long and hard over their decision, and at the close of their deliberations, they chose to return a two-count indictment against Officer Stephen Roach. Count one charges Stephen Roach with negligent homicide. This charge states that on April 7, 2001, Officer Stephen Roach negligently caused the death of Timothy Thomas by means a deadly weapon. This is a misdemeanor in the first degree, punishable by up to six months in jail.

Count two in the two-count indictment, is a charge of obstructing official business. This is a misdemeanor in the second degree, punishable by up to 90 days in jail. The charge states that with purpose to prevent, obstruct or delay the performance by a public official, Stephen Roach did an act with hampered or impeded the public official in the performance of his duties.

Again, without going into detail, this charge pertain to the difference in versions of events given to homicide investigators by Stephen Roach on April 7 and again on April 10, 2001.

I wanted to point out also to you, and I think it's important that the public know, that the grand jury in this case took an oath, and that oath can be found in Ohio Revised Code, Section 2939.06. In that oath, each member of the grand jury promised to diligently inquire into and true presentment make of all matters given to them, to present or charge no person with malice, hatred or ill-will, nor to leave unpresented or uncharged any person through fear, favor or affection, and that in all of their presentments, they promise to present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, according to the best of their skill and understanding.

In addition to the instructions by a common police judge when they began their service, the grand jury was instructed again, just before they began their deliberations in this case, of their function as a grand jury. This included the instruction that there is no public purpose to be served in indicting a person when it appears that the evidence would be insufficient to sustain a conviction, and that unjust or unfounded accusations should not be made against anyone.

On the other hand, they were told and instructed that it's equally important that indictments be returned against those appearing, upon an honest and impartial examination, to have probably committed a crime. Finally, the grand jury was instructed that no grand juror has the right to permit their judgment to be influenced or controlled by any religious, political or personal feeling.

Finally, if I can, just for a moment, let me comment on the possible reaction to today's announcement. I know that emotions are running high over the tragic death of Timothy Thomas. But the case against Officer Roach cannot be decided or based upon emotion. To those who say the charges are too light, and to those who say that the charges are too severe, my response is the same: please withhold your judgment until you know all of the facts.

The proper place for judgment is in a trial before a jury of citizens of this community, where all of the evidence will be presented, and the full picture will be publicly known for the first time.

And now to the extent that the law permits me, I will try to answer questions.


ALLEN: Hang on a minute, let me get Lynn.

QUESTION: Some in the community, as you're aware, have said anything of short of murder, and justice would not be served. How do you explain to those people why not murder in this case?

ALLEN: I think that's a very irresponsible statement for someone who is a community leader to make. Murder is not appropriate in this case, because murder is a purposeful act, and it requires a specific intention to cause a certain result. And I can only surmise that the grand jury felt that that was not appropriate in this case. Yeah, Deb?

QUESTION: For some in the African-American community, they are saying that of course it's a misdemeanor. There's no justice for African-Americans, and it's a cop. And this is what they expected. How can you make them feel, how can assure them that this decision is what it should have been?

ALLEN: It is a fair question. The only thing they can say and I can implore of everyone in our community is to look at the case and look at the facts when it comes to trial.

And I will say that I think that the grand jury made the right call in this case. They were the ones that listened to the 20 witnesses. They were the ones that considered the exhibits. They were the ones that considered the photographs, and they made the decision that they did.

Not every homicide is a purposeful act. Not every homicide constitutes murder. Some are reckless in nature, some are negligent in nature, and I think the grand jury felt, obviously, that if anything, this was a negligent act. Hang on, Chris.

QUESTION: I just want to follow up. Legally, is it lapse...

ALLEN: It's a substantial lapse of due care. That's the legal standard. Legal negligence is a lot different than civil negligence, and what the state has to show in order to sustain a conviction is a substantial lapse of due care. And that's the standard for criminal negligence. Yeah, Chris?

QUESTION: Mike, negligent homicide obviously indicates this was an accident, that's obviously a misdemeanor. However, reckless homicide would have been a felony. Why was that not an applicable charge? In other words, why is a misdemeanor more appropriate for the facts of the case?

ALLEN: I can only surmise that the grand jury did not feel that the acts of police Officer Roach rose to the level of recklessness, which is a heedless indifference to the consequences when you perversely disregard a known risk. Recklessness is one step above negligence, and I can only surmise that the grand jury did not feel that the facts did not fit that particular charge. Yes, Terry.

QUESTION: You were very open the last time, with the riots, what you would do to the folks that were out there. What are you saying this time (UNINTELLIGIBLE) emotion being played off of what is happening tonight?

ALLEN: I am hoping that the leaders, all leaders in our community, take a deep breath, and the people that follow them and the people that follow their advice, listen to them, and I hope they act responsibly.

Again, the only people that fully know the story, or at least are starting to know part of the story, are those grand jurors who made this decision. And the facts will come out in trial, and it would be irresponsible, I think, to try to urge anyone to commit violent acts because of this decision. And I hope our leaders are responsible.

QUESTION: What about Officer Roach and his family? Do they know of the decision? Has there been any sort of response from his attorney or anywhere?

ALLEN: We will communicate with his attorney at the appropriate time. I don't know what he is experiencing now, but my sympathy goes to he and his family, the same as it does with Mrs. Leisure.

QUESTION: What is the name of his attorney?


Yes, ma'am. QUESTION: What was the racial makeup of the grand jury?

ALLEN: It was a racially diverse and mixed jury. African- Americans, whites, men, female, young and old. It truly was a racially diverse grand jury. Hang on a minute. I'm sorry?


ALLEN: I do, but I cannot disclose those. Suffice to say it was a racially diverse grand jury, with African-Americans, whites, young, old, male and female.

QUESTION: Mr. Allen, could you define the fine line here between these misdemeanors and the more serious felony offenses they could have indicted him with?

ALLEN: Aggravated murder is the most serious charge that we have in our criminal code. That basically provides that you purposely take the life of another, in some cases with prior calculation and design, and in some cases it could mean felony murder. Obviously, the grand jury did not feel that was appropriate.

However, I will point out they were instructed as to the law of aggravated murder, which is purposely causing another's death. And again, purposely means with a specific intention to commit a certain act. Voluntary manslaughter is knowingly causing another's death while under sudden passion. Obviously, the grand jury felt that didn't apply.

Let me finish. Involuntary manslaughter is causing another's death as the approximate result of committing a felony, or in some cases, a misdemeanor. There was no underlying -- the grand jury apparently felt there was no felony -- underlying felony or misdemeanor.

Reckless homicide, as I said before, is recklessly causing another's death. Negligent homicide is negligently causing another's death by a means of a deadly weapon or dangerous ordinance. And that's kind of the hierarchy of homicide offenses in the state of Ohio.



ALLEN: When you present this to the grand jury, or your prosecutors do, you kind of steer them in a way, or make a recommendation? How does that work for us who have never been in there?

ALLEN: I'll tell you right now, this case was presented straight up. The grand jury received the facts from the witness stand. Twenty witnesses altogether, civilians, police officers. Mrs. Thomas was our first witness, we thought that appropriate for her to come in and tell the grand jury what she wanted to tell them. It was presented straight up. We instructed as to the law, as is our statutory duty, and they made the decision. Again -- I'll say it again, they were instructed on aggravated murder, murder, the manslaughter offenses, reckless homicide and negligent homicide.

QUESTION: So, you don't make an argument like you would at the actual trial?

ALLEN: No, sir, that's inappropriate. And I know that the common adage is out there that a prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich in a grand jury, my experience is that this is not true. Grand jurors have a mind of their own.

QUESTION: So, that means you didn't really conduct this as a trial, did you? That was your initial statement?

ALLEN: It was conducted in many ways like a trial. It was conducted -- we put more time in this case than we did in many of our other grand jury investigation and presentments. It went over a two- day period.

QUESTION: Was the grand jury told that Mr. Thomas may have eluded Officer Roach before, and had they known that, that might have entered into their decision as to murder or manslaughter?

ALLEN: I'm not going to get into the specifics as to what they were instructed, other than to say that they were instructed on the applicable law.

QUESTION: Did you give them this information?

ALLEN: Chris?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mike. Officer Schroeder was standing behind Officer Roach when the shooting happened, and it was said that he was really the only person in a position to have seen what actually happened when the shot was fired. How important was his account of what happened to this case, or how important was it to the decision and how important is it to the case?

ALLEN: I'm sorry, I just can't get into that. Those matters will come out at trial. I just can't discuss it. Hang on a minute.

QUESTION: You said that they reviewed...

SESNO: You're listening to Hamilton county prosecutor Michael Allen, talking about a very important case in the city of Cincinnati, one that had Cincinnati very much up in arms not very long ago, the shooting of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed African-American by a white police officer, Stephen Roach.

You heard just now that the grand jury has returned two indictments, one of negligent homicide, misdemeanor in the first degree, also another of obstruction of official business, also a homicide. Bob Franken is in Cincinnati, and Bob Franken joins us. Also here in the studio, our legal analyst Greta Van Susteren. But Bob, first to you, your reflections after hearing this?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, the combined crimes have a maximum penalty of nine months. The city, of course, is taking the deep breath that the prosecutor Michael Allen asked for it to take, because there's quite of bit of concern.

It's been very publicly expressed that if the African-American community was disappointed in the results of this grand jury investigation, there could be some sort of repeat of the trouble that occurred exactly a month ago. It followed the shooting of Timothy Thomas, who is the 19-year-old black man who was shot by officer Stephen Roach, who has been the subject of this investigation.

Police officials have been reinforcing. They've been going on extra duty. The mayor of the city walked through the main African- American community in the city today asking for calm. And the one good sign, you might be able to notice right now the rain has just started in Cincinnati, and officials can only hope that the forecast of rain might mean that the streets might not be as volatile as they're worried that they might be.

SESNO: All right, Bob. You grab that umbrella there. We're going to go over to Greta Van Susteren here, who's in the studio. No rain here, but Greta, help take us through what we just heard here. We did hear the prosecutor say repeatedly that the standard for criminal negligence is what he called a substantial lapse of due care.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yeah, what that means is simply this, Frank: If we were in a grocery store in the parking lot and I decided to back out and not look in my rear-view mirror, and I backed over and killed you, that would be a substantial lapse of due care. It's the lowest and lowest of any type of homicide.

SESNO: All right. So take us from that definition then to what the grand jury obviously took out of this case.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, it's hard to predict what the grand jury -- you know, what the grand jury decided the case on. We only heard a little bit. I mean, he really didn't tell us very much.

For instance, this prosecutor, who incidentally used to be a police officer himself, which sort of brings an interesting twist to this investigation, but he didn't tell us what the lighting was like. We have no idea what the -- who saw what. Some police officers made statements. We don't know what the police officer said. We don't know if any of the statements contradicted each other. We don't know what Officer Roach said. Officer Roach made a statement some time afterwards.

We don't know what the forensic report is. Forensic reports can determine, for instance, how far apart the decedent was from Officer Roach at the time of the shooting. You get residue on the shirt. You even get burns on the body from the bullets. We really don't know much. All we know is this prosecutor has come out and he's asked us basically, on his representation, he said this is the evidence we presented, we did it in a fair way, and now it's time to (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

SESNO: You make a point that he is a former police officer. Does that in any way taint or raise questions about where this prosecutor was coming from?

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, it might give him a little different perspective in presenting evidence. I'm not suggesting that he went in there and the fix was in. Not at all. But he goes in there with a greater understanding of police work.

If someone goes in there, for instance, with no understanding of police work, they might present the evidence a little bit differently. He probably understands the danger of police work. It does have a slight bearing. I don't -- I'm not -- I don't mean to at all suggest that he went in there with a bias, other than he goes in with a perspective, maybe having a little bit more information, different information than your run-of-the-mill prosecutor.

SESNO: And of course, the prosecutor went out of his way to address the community, all of Cincinnati, and said: Please hold your judgment until you know the facts. The proper place to find all this out is in a courtroom.

VAN SUSTEREN: That's right. And -- and we -- actually, having listened to him, we know absolutely nothing about the facts, other than that there is a man who has been tragically shot and the police officer shot him.

SESNO: Greta Van Susteren, thanks very much, and to Bob Franken in Cincinnati, we thank him as well. We'll be going back out there to monitor developments in Cincinnati throughout the remainder of the evening and beyond.



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