Tuesday, November 28, 2000

Immunity for cops possible

Prosecutor takes death to grand jury

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The decision to launch a grand jury investigation into the death of Roger Owensby Jr. raises the stakes for everyone involved in the case.

        Witnesses will now be asked to give sworn statements about what they saw. Prosecutors will try to question Cincinnati police officers about how Mr. Owensby died in police custody Nov. 7.

        And the officers will, for the first time, face the possibility of criminal charges.

  Other developments in the investigation of the death of Roger Owensby Jr.:
  • Police announced they expected today to release the evidence log in which officers recorded the cocaine and marijuana they recovered on Mr. Owensby. Officials said they don't think the log will reveal much new, other than the times and location of the items found.
  • Scott Greenwood, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio based in Cleveland, directed the agency's legal staff to start a full investigation into a possible racial profiling lawsuit against the city.
  Officials met last week with local African-American ministers, who want to use the controversy about alleged police aggression toward black people as a legal springboard for wide-scale change.
        “The grand jury is a very powerful tool,” said Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen, who announced the grand jury investigation Monday.

        The question is whether it is powerful enough to get to the bottom of a complex case that has

        stirred controversy about police tactics, race relations and the methods used to investigate charges of police misconduct.

        Mr. Allen and others close to the case agree the grand jury will be able to dig deeper than the homicide detectives who have been investigating Mr. Owensby's suffocation death for nearly three weeks.

        The nine grand jury members, selected at random from voter registration records, are expected to begin hearing evidence in secret by Wednesday or Thursday.

        The root of the grand jury's power is in its ability to indict, or charge, suspects with criminal wrongdoing. The jury can subpoena witnesses to testify and can accuse those who lie of perjury.

        “The aura of a grand jury is one people should take seriously,” Mr. Allen said. “It should have the tendency to make people tell the truth.”

        The jury also gives prosecutors more flexibility — and leverage — in their dealings with potential witnesses.

        Perhaps the most valuable tool for prosecutors is the ability to grant potential witnesses a promise of immunity from prosecution. Prosecutors can clear a witness of criminal charges if that witness agrees to testify about the case.

        Immunity could become an issue in the Owensby case if prosecutors use it in an attempt to break the silence of the five officers who arrested Mr. Owensby.

        So far, none of the officers has cooperated with investigators. Mr. Allen would not comment when asked if immunity will be offered to any of the officers.

        But the prosecutor did express some frustration Monday with the officers' refusal to talk.

        “Obviously it would be helpful if the officers involved would be compelled to talk,” Mr. Allen said. “Thus far, they have not.”

        Asked if the case could be resolved without the officers' testimony, Mr. Allen said: “That's the $64,000 question. We're certainly going to try.”

        The coroner has ruled Mr. Owensby, of Roselawn, died of “mechanical asphyxiation” shortly after his arrest outside a Roselawn convenience store.

        But investigators remain unsure how the asphyxiation occurred or if the arresting officers did anything to cause it.

        Even with a grand jury, prosecutors know there's no guarantee they can get the answers they need. An attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police acknowledged the grand jury is powerful, but said it does not have the final say on guilt or innocence.

        “A grand jury inquires and has the power to indict,” FOP attorney Don Hardin said. “But even with an indictment, that doesn't mean somebody's guilty.”

        Mr. Owensby's mother, Brenda, said the grand jury gives her hope the case is closer to resolution.

        “It's encouraging to see that something is going on,” she said. “It's better than being at a standstill.”

        Mr. Allen said he would not put a timetable on completing the grand jury investigation, saying only it would likely be done in “weeks, not months.”

        Enquirer reporter Jane Prendergast contributed.


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