Justice Dept. Is Said to Quietly Quash Inquiry Into Tamir Rice Killing

This article features Government Accountability Project and was originally published here.

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department decided more than a year ago to effectively shut down its civil-rights investigation into the high-profile killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy carrying a pellet gun who was shot by a Cleveland police officer in 2014, according to people familiar with the matter.

Career prosecutors had asked in 2017 to use a grand jury to gather evidence in their investigation, setting off tensions inside the department. In an unusual move, department supervisors let the request languish for two years before finally denying permission in August 2019, essentially ending the inquiry without fully conducting it.

But more than a year later, the department has yet to take the bureaucratic steps to close the case, like completing a draft memo explaining why it declined to indict anyone. And it has not told the Rice family or the public that it will not charge the police officer.

Subodh Chandra, a former federal prosecutor who is representing the Rice family, said Tamir’s mother, Samaria Rice, was devastated. “When Samaria Rice heard the news, she cried out repeatedly, ‘I’m not ready for this!’” Mr. Chandra said. “The federal investigation was her last hope for justice. Accountability was so important to her and her family.”

The Justice Department’s press office declined to comment. Henry Hilow, a lawyer for the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association who represented the two officers involved in the case, did not return a phone message left with his assistant on Thursday.

Tamir Rice’s killing became a touchstone in the national debate over race and policing and prompted protests. But the prospect of bringing a federal case against Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot him, was broadly seen as challenging because prosecutors would need to prove that he had intentionally violated Tamir’s civil rights. His pellet gun looked real, a 911 dispatcher had failed to relay that it might have been a toy wielded by a juvenile, and Officer Loehmann shot him immediately upon arriving.

The investigation had stagnated in the final year of the Obama administration. President Trump’s two attorneys general, Jeff Sessions and William P. Barr, have set a tone that their Justice Department will not aggressively police the conduct of local law-enforcement officials, but the matter was apparently handled by civil rights division supervisors. A former department official said Mr. Sessions was never briefed about prosecutors’ request for permission to use a grand jury, and a current one said the same about Mr. Barr.

State prosecutors have broader latitude to charge police officers with crimes based on lower standards of proof, like manslaughter resulting from recklessness. But in late 2015, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor announced that a grand jury, on his recommendation, had decided not to charge Officer Loehmann with any crime under state law.

The outcome upset lawyers for the Rice family, especially after the disclosure that the prosecutor apparently permitted the police officers to read prepared statements before the grand jury without cross-examining them. The Rice family asked for a federal civil-rights investigation, and the Justice Department said it was conducting a review.

Since then, Cleveland agreed in 2016 to pay $6 million to the Rice family to settle a lawsuit, and Officer Loehmann was fired in 2017. But the Justice Department has been largely silent about what was happening with its investigation.

Current and former officials familiar with the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, described a dysfunctional and delayed effort. They spoke in response to inquiries by The New York Times after it learned that David Z. Seide, a lawyer representing a person familiar with the case, filed a whistle-blower complaint with the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, accusing the department of mishandling the matter.

Mr. Seide, a senior counsel at the Government Accountability Project, which assists whistle-blowers, approached The Times after the inspector general’s office informed him last week that it would not investigate the complaint. Lawmakers have not empowered Mr. Horowitz to scrutinize allegations of ethical violations and professional misconduct by department lawyers. (Congress is weighing legislation to expand his jurisdiction; Mr. Barr has objected to it.)

The case stagnated throughout 2016, the final year of the Obama administration, according to the interviews, including with Mr. Seide’s client. One factor, several people said, was that federal law enforcement officials in Ohio were reluctant to further pursue Officer Loehmann.

The Justice Department had obtained a so-called consent decree to overhaul the Cleveland Police Department on matters like training and wanted to focus on such systemic issues. In addition, officials recognized that it would be difficult to prove intent to meet the legal standard to convict the officer of a federal civil-rights crime, they said.

Other people familiar with the case said another problem caused delays: The civil rights division needed to gather and review local investigative files. Local officials, they said, had dragged their feet in turning over all the evidence.

In 2017, after Mr. Trump took office, the civil rights division reassigned the investigation to two career prosecutors, Jared Fishman and Nick Reddick. They began trying more aggressively to gather further evidence.

One angle they proposed exploring was whether Officer Loehmann and his partner had given statements whose accuracy was subject to scrutiny for potential obstruction of justice charges; if so, the department could leverage them to build toward civil-rights charges. In particular, they wanted to know the extent to which Officer Loehmann had clearly and repeatedly warned Tamir to put his hands up before shooting him, as the officer claimed he had.

Under Justice Department rules, criminal prosecutors with the civil rights division must receive permission to use a grand jury to subpoena for documents or witness testimony. In mid-2017, the people said, Mr. Fishman and Mr. Reddick wrote a roughly 20-page memo analyzing the case and requesting permission to pursue a grand jury investigation.

Two career supervisors in the section concurred with the request, the people said. They submitted the memo to Robert Moossy Jr., a deputy assistant attorney general, who, although a career official, works alongside Mr. Trump’s political appointees who run the division.

Typically, the people said, such a request is approved or denied within a few weeks. But no one responded to the memo. In fall 2018, the career prosecutors submitted a supplemental memo of about equal length that contained additional evidence and analysis making the case that a grand jury investigation was justified, the people said. But that memo also yielded no response.

The inaction prompted suspicions among career lawyers that political appointees were running out the clock: The statute of limitations generally expires after five years for obstruction charges, and the officers made their statements in 2014 and 2015. But they had no direct knowledge of the discussions within the division’s front office — which was first led by John Gore and then Eric S. Dreiband after October 2018 — nor about interactions, if any, regarding the case with the attorney general’s office.

In July 2019, Mr. Barr decided that the department would not seek an indictment of the New York City police officer who had put Eric Garner into a chokehold in July 2014, ignoring his cries of “I can’t breathe”; Mr. Garner passed out and was later pronounced dead. Shortly after that public announcement, the people said, word reached the career ranks that their request to use a grand jury to investigate the Rice case had been denied.

Another department official, defending its handling of the Rice investigation on the condition of anonymity, noted that the matter was still not technically closed and suggested that the department might, in theory, someday change course and empower prosecutors to use a grand jury after all. Still, Mr. Seide said the statute of limitations for the final statements that might yield potential obstruction charges would expire by year’s end.

In one respect, the Garner case was similar to Tamir Rice’s killing: In both instances, federal law enforcement officials who worked with the local police departments were more reluctant than civil rights division prosecutors in Washington to pursue a federal police brutality case. In another respect, it was very different: The Garner case received a full grand jury investigation, while the Rice case was quashed without one.

Mr. Chandra said the “stench of political interference hovers over this case” and called the outcome tragic.

“It was devastating to learn that this supposedly ‘law-and-order’ administration defied the judgment of career prosecutors, slow-rolled the investigation to let the statute of limitations run out, hid from the crime victim’s family its decision not to prosecute, and let the officers get away with murder and obstruction of justice,” he said.