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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Secret Jury Records in Black Man’s Death to Be Released

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Daniel Prude, 41


New York State Attorney General Letitia James made an unusual move in the death of Daniel Prude, ruled a homicide by the Monroe County Office of the Medical Examiner.

She requested that the court unseal the secret grand jury minutes for release to the public. The judge granted her motion, which James announced on February 23, the same day of the grand jury’s decision, which brought no criminal charges against any Rochester police officers in the death of Prude, a Black man who was suffering a psychotic episode.

“This is a critical step in effecting the change that is so desperately needed,” she said.

“The criminal justice system has frustrated efforts to hold law enforcement officers accountable for the unjustified killing of unarmed African Americans,” said James. “And what binds these cases is a tragic loss of life in circumstances in which the death could have been avoided. . . . And history has, unfortunately, repeated itself again in the case of Daniel Prude.”

Last March 23, Prude’s brother, who worried that his visiting sibling might hurt himself, called the police twice within 24 hours. The first time, the Chicago resident was taken to Strong Memorial Hospital, where he left in an hour. The second time, it was predawn. Officers found him wandering naked on the streets of Rochester in a snowfall. They handcuffed him from behind, placed a “spit hood” over his head, and one officer used both hands to force Prude face down with the weight of his body for two minutes and 15 seconds and, then, with one hand for 45 seconds. Two other officers held down Prude’s torso and legs.

Prude, 41, was declared brain dead at the hospital. One week later, the father of five died and was taken off life support.

Monroe County Court Judge Karen Bailey Turner was the judge who granted the motion to release grand jury proceedings. She has experience working with the mentally ill. Before winning her judgeship in 2019, she had been a lawyer with the state’s Mental Health Legal Service (MHLS), according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Among other things, the MHLS represents the mentally disabled in civil commitment proceedings.

The police officers’ defense was caught by surprise.

James Nobles, who represents Officer Mark Vaughn, said that the officers have nothing to hide and found the timing of the decision’s announcement -- well after 5 p.m. – curious.

“There were three particular officers who were targets of this investigation,” Nobles said, questioning how a judge could make the decision without hearing from their attorneys. “I am one. Nobody called me.”

Nobles’ client, Officer Vaughn, can be seen using the “segmenting” physical restraint technique on a prostrate and handcuffed Prude in a police body-worn camera video, a video that was released to Prude’s family six months after the incident and incited both national public indignation and local protests.

The defense took action the next day, according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle:

“Attorney James Nobles . . . wrote that the attorneys, after the review, would like the opportunity to be heard before Your Honor to determine whether or not the release of these Grand Jury minutes is authorized under law and, if they are, what redactions are necessary and should be made.”

The union for the New York State Police also weighed in. Its president, Thomas Mungeer, said in a statement:

‘Why does the Attorney General feel that she has to move the goal post when faced – in her opinion – with an adverse opinion?

“The sanctity and secrecy of the grand jury process is (sic) embedded in our laws, and we hope that knee-jerk reactions won’t crack the foundation upon which our criminal justice system is based.”

“Crack the foundation” of the criminal justice system? Grand juries are not nationwide institutions.

The federal government and all 50 states have provisions for grand juries, but only half of the states employ them. The other states use preliminary hearings before a trial court judge.

Grand juries in the United States are groups of citizens empowered by federal or state law to conduct legal proceedings, chiefly investigating potential criminal conduct and determining whether criminal charges should be brought against defendants. The grand jury originated under English law. Today, however, the United States and Liberia, which was founded by freed Black Americans, are the jurisdictions that use it to screen criminal indictments.

In New York, a grand jury has between 15 and 23 jurors. Indictments require 12 votes.

Jurors are not representative of the community, and they do not, necessarily, possess a satisfactory ability to ask pertinent questions or have a sufficient understanding of government and the concept of due process. Unlike potential jurors in other trials, grand jurors are not screened for bias or other factors, and they are rarely read any instruction on the law.

In 2014, the grand jury system came under renewed criticism after three high-profile cases, where police officers killed Black men Michael Brown, 18 and Eric Garner, 43, and a Black child, Tamir Rice, 12. The grand juries voted not to indict the officers. The decisions sparked protests across the United States.

In September 2020, a Kentucky grand jury returned no charges for the killing of a Black woman, Breonna Taylor, 26. The decision also incited national protests.

The following month, two grand jurors who heard the Breonna Taylor case said that prosecutors were dismissive of their questions and that there was an “uproar” when jurors realized that Louisville police officers would not be charged with Taylor’s death, according to CNN (October 30).

A Jefferson County Circuit judge allowed jurors to speak about their service after Grand Juror 1, a white male, filed court documents suggesting public comments about the proceedings by Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron were misleading.

In a news conference, Cameron said that the six possible homicide charges were not considered against the Louisville police officers who fired their weapons into Taylor’s apartment because “they were justified in the return of deadly fire”. The “grand jury agreed” with that decision.

Grand Juror 1 said that the first time he heard there were six possible homicide charges was in Cameron’s news conference.

Who benefits from secret grand juries?

New York Attorney General James said that she will push for changes to state use-of-force laws and the handling of mental health and medical emergencies, according to CNN (February 24). She also advocates mandatory training of de-escalation techniques.

The seven police officers involved in the Prude case will remain on leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation, Acting Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan said in a statement via Twitter. Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren fired Herriott-Sullivan's predecessor after Prude’s death.

The Monroe County Office of the Medical Examiner ruled Prude’s death a homicide, according to a copy of the autopsy report obtained by lawyers for his family. The report cited complications of asphyxia, acute PCP intoxication and excited delirium as causes of death.

What led up to the death of Prude?

He was having a psychotic episode, according to The New York Times. Prude’s family called 911, the emergency number, twice. During the first call, they told police that they suspected that he was under the influence of the powerful hallucinogen, phencyclidine, or PCP. They said that he might have taken it unknowingly.

Prude, a Chicago resident, had arrived the previous day to visit his brother’s family. He rode Amtrak to Buffalo, 80 miles from Rochester, where he was kicked off the train, his brother, Joe, later told police, according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. After being driven to Rochester, he began to act erratically, accusing his brother of trying to kill him and, seemingly, trying to take his own life. He jumped head-first down 21 basement steps when Joe Prude said he, first, called police for help, according to The Times.

Prude was taken to Strong Memorial Hospital for a mental health evaluation and left an hour later. After some hours of stable behavior, at 3 in the morning, Prude, wearing only a tank top and long johns, ran out of the back door of Joe Prude’s home when his brother was out of the room, prompting another call for help to 911. His brother feared that Prude would run toward a train and harm himself.

Prude was compliant when he was handcuffed by police after he ran in the street naked in the middle of a night snowfall, said the Democrat and Chronicle. Prude told police that he had the new coronavirus. He began spitting on the ground, although not aiming at the officers. The police pulled down over his head a white “spit hood” designed to protect police from a suspect’s bodily fluids. Except for the hood, Prude remained naked in temperatures just above freezing.

When he tried to get up, one officer used both hands to force Prude face down on the ground with the weight of his body for two minutes and 15 seconds. Two others held down the man’s torso and legs. Then, before letting up, the first officer asked, “You good now?” to the prone man, who did not respond. The officer resumed pushing Prude’s head with one hand for 45 more seconds, according to the Democrat and Chronicle.

An ambulance arrived, and there were three minutes of chatting among the emergency medical technicians and the police officers. There was no mention that Prude had stopped talking and moving, according to the Democrat and Chronicle.

When one of the emergency medical technicians asked the police to roll Prude over, he recognized that Prude was not breathing and began administering CPR and asking for help from his colleague. Officers could not immediately find a key to remove the handcuffs, so Prude’s hands remained secured behind his back for two minutes while the paramedics continued to try to resuscitate him.

In the ambulance ride to a hospital, Prude’s heartbeat returned, but his brain had been deprived of oxygen too long. Prude was declared brain dead. One week later, he died after being taken off life support.

Nationally renowned civil rights attorney Ben Crump and Chicago-based Attorney Antonio Romanucci, who are representing Prude’s family, said that they are “deeply disappointed that the officers will not face criminal charges for killing Danial Prude during what was clearly a mental health crisis as he lay naked in the cold street with a spit hood they placed over his head.

“This tragedy could have been avoided if officers had been properly trained but also used basic human decency and common sense to treat Mr. Prude with compassion and get him the medical attention he deserved,” the attorneys said in a statement. “We will continue to advocate for justice in the civil courts, while also seeking federal police reform so that these continued tragedies against Black citizens end once and for all.”

The United States Justice Department said in a statement:

“We intend to review the comprehensive report issued by the New York State Attorney General, as well as any other relevant materials, and will determine whether any further federal response is warranted.”

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said that the grand jury decision is “hard for many of us to understand” but that the city will make sure Prude’s death was not in vain.

Matthew Rich, who represents several officers, said the decision was a “long time coming”.

“We’ve been eagerly awaiting this, and we aren’t surprised by it,” he said. “We are glad the grand jury made the right decision, but this doesn’t put an end to the situation the community finds itself (in).”

Attorney Nobles, who represents Officer Vaughn, said the city should seek policy changes within the department rather than punish individual officers.

The Rochester Police Locust Club, the union which represents rank and file officers, declined to comment on the grand jury decision pending the ongoing investigation. It has sued the city of Rochester and acting Chief Herriott-Sullivan over the temporary appointments of officers to higher ranks, saying the moves are a violation of civil service laws, according to the Democrat and Chronicle.

The lawsuit stems from a series of personnel changes in the autumn of 2020 after former Chief La’Ron Singeltary was fired and the remainder of his command staff accepted demotions or announced their retirements.

There were protests in Rochester after the grand jury decision as there were after Prude’s death. In September, after release of the video, the Rochester City Council authorized subpoena power to a New York City law firm leading the independent investigation into the city’s handling of the case.

Later, the city released 325 pages of internal emails, police reports and other documents that showed a concerted effort by police and city officials to delay the release of incriminating body camera footage, according to CNN.

“In one released police incident report, among many edits, some prosaic, Prude’s name is written in the space labeled ‘Victim’. Prude’s name is circled in red, next to a large, handwritten note: ‘Make him a suspect.’”

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