Howard County's chief prosecutor says he will decide whether to file charges against the police officers involved in the January shooting of a 20-year-old fugitive - reversing his predecessor's plan to allow a grand jury of citizens to decide whether force is justified in such cases.
When former State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon announced plans to adopt the new grand jury policy in November 2001, two months after Pfc. Timothy Wiley shot an unarmed North Laurel man, Police Chief G. Wayne Livesay and current State's Attorney Tim McCrone praised the decision.
At that time, McCrone, who was both Wiley's and the police union's attorney, said that a grand jury's dismissal of a case gave officers greater "support." Livesay called it a "cleaner way to do business" and one that brought consistency to the process.
Three years later, however, Livesay refused to comment and McCrone characterized McLendon's approach, once heralded as a way to increase public confidence, as a "political cover."
"Quite frankly, the benefit of presenting all deadly force cases to the grand jury is that it provides political insulation for the state's attorney," McCrone said. "I don't think that insulation from criticism is sufficient justification for a change."
McLendon, who now works for Arizona's attorney general, said she and a deputy drafted procedures for handling police shootings because Livesay and County Executive James N. Robey supported a grand jury review in such cases.
The idea, she said, was not to approach the jury asking for charges, as is typical, but rather to give an independent group with subpoena power the chance to scrutinize the Police Department's findings.
McLendon said she sent Livesay a draft of the new policy, but he did not respond with suggestions. When she called him to follow up, she said Livesay had decided to wait until a new state's attorney was elected.
"The time to make these policy decisions is when a case isn't on your desk," she said.
The matter died in draft form and did not resurface until January, when police shot Jejuan Deon Griffin, 20, of Laurel, a detainee from the Howard County Detention Center who police say tried to run over officers who were attempting to capture him at a motel on U.S. 1 in Elkridge.
In a short news release issued the next day, police did not explain the events that led to his death and omitted the fact that there was another man in the vehicle with him.
Police shootings do not occur regularly in Howard County. The Jan. 21 incident was the only one in recent history to involve numerous officers and a SWAT team on the scene.
That fact should make McCrone's decision an issue of style, not concern, said Sheldon Greenberg, a former Howard County police officer and director of the public safety leadership division at the Johns Hopkins University.
"Prosecutors go back and forth on a case-by-case basis on this issue just because it's such an aberration," he said.
"What people want is a thorough fact-finding process, and in many places, a state's attorney can be trusted to do that. In other areas, because of previous errors or biases, people don't trust the prosecutor. Nothing I've read or seen or heard indicates that people are up in arms about that here."
But attorney Kenneth Trombly, who represents Griffin's relatives, said that McCrone's former role as the police chief's legal adviser from 1981 to 1984 and the police union's attorney from 1991 to 2002 gives an "impression of impropriety."
"Given his relationship, plus prior support of having an independent entity determine whether to move forward, a grand jury review would seem to be the most prudent course," Trombly said.
However, McCrone said that although he defended officers more recently in his career, he often prosecuted them internally for breaking rules while serving as the chief's legal adviser in the early 1980s.
State's attorneys in neighboring jurisdictions agree with his approach. Prosecutors in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties make the call on every case involving an officer's use of deadly force.
Grand jury proceedings needlessly draw out the process for weeks, and prosecutors can "step above" close relationships with law enforcement, said Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee.