WASHINGTON — The Justice Department announced on Tuesday that it will not bring criminal charges in the 2014 death of Tamir Rice, saying there was not enough evidence to prove that Cleveland police officers used excessive force against the 12-year-old.
“The evidence in this case fails to definitively establish what happened at the time of the shooting,” according to a lengthy statement from the Justice Department, adding that a key evidence – a video of the shooting – was too grainy to clearly show what had happened.
Rice’s death is one of several high-profile deaths at the hands of police that ignited nationwide protests and helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement. The boy’s death was, for years, part of the national conversation on use of force against people of color.
The Justice Department’s announcement attributes much of the decision-making to the agency’s career prosecutors or non-politically appointed officials who independently reviewed the evidence. But the New York Times reported in October that career prosecutors had asked in 2017 to convene a grand jury, but department supervisors denied the request two years later, effectively ending the investigation.
The department cited the difficulty to successfully bring federal civil rights charges against police officers.
“The government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers acted willfully. This high legal standard – one of the highest standards of intent imposed by law – requires proof that the officer acted with the specific intent to do something the law forbids,” the department said. “It is not enough to show that the officer made a mistake, acted negligently, acted by accident or mistake, or even exercised bad judgment.”
In Rice’s case, the department said all the pieces of evidence were insufficient.
Rice was shot and killed by Officer Timothy Loehmann, who is white, on Nov. 22, 2014. Police had received a call about a “guy with a pistol” who was pointing a weapon at people outside a recreation center in Cleveland. Rice at the time had spent the day outside the center playing with a pellet gun. Officers did not know that the gun might be a toy or that Rice might be a juvenile.
Loehmann fired two shots, striking Rice in the abdomen. Loehmann and another officer, Frank Garmback, both said that Rice was asked repeatedly to show his hands and that they saw him reach for his gun before the shooting.
The video evidence did not provide much clarity because it was shot from a distance and did not show portions of the incident, the Justice Department said. It was also unclear from the video whether Rice was, in fact, reaching for the gun before he was shot.
Use-of-force experts hired by county prosecutors found that Loehmann’s use of force was reasonable, while experts retained by Rice’s family found the officer’s actions were not justified.
“Because the experts relied heavily on the poor-quality video of the incident and reached different conclusions about what it showed, their conflicting opinions added little to the case,” the Justice Department said.
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Prosecutors also did not find enough evidence to prove that Loehmann and Garmback obstructed justice in their statements to officials after the shooting, the department said, adding that the officers’ statements have been generally consistent.
A state grand jury declined to charge Loehmann in 2015. He was fired two years later for lying on his application to the Cleveland Division of Police.
In 2016, the Rice family won a $6 million settlement in a lawsuit against Cleveland. The city admitted no wrongdoing.
“Justice would have been officers never killing Tamir Rice in the first place. But the choice to close this case only reinforces our legal system’s indifference to Black life,” the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted shortly after the Justice Department announcement.
Last year, the Justice Department announced it will not bring federal charges against a New York City police officer over the death of Eric Garner during a chaotic arrest that ignited nationwide protests. Like in Rice’s case, prosecutors cited the difficulty of successfully bringing charges against police officers and said the evidence did not show that the officers acted willfully.
Contributing: Associated Press