Monday, May 07, 2001

Grand jury ruling today

Some fear decision on officer could renew unrest

By Marie McCain and Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Today — exactly one month since an unarmed black man was shot and killed by a city police officer - Cincinnati braces for a grand-jury decision that some fear could rekindle violence and divisiveness.

Archive of riot coverage
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        Jurors heard evidence Thursday and Friday about how Cincinnati Officer Steve Roach fired one shot at Timothy Thomas in a dark Over-the-Rhine alley April 7.

        The nine-member panel was to decide if the officer committed a crime in the shooting, which drew international attention and spawned unrest and rioting for several days before curfew returned order.

        Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen will announce the grand jury's ruling at 6 p.m. today. Officials would neither say what the jurors decided nor discuss any other part of the proceedings.

  The Hamilton County grand jury that heard evidence in the Timothy Thomas shooting had several options, including:
  • “Aggravated murder,” the most serious possible charge Cincinnati Police Officer Steve Roach could face for his role in the April 7 shooting.
  This charge means that the accused person purposefully, with prior calculation and design, caused the death of another. It carries a minimum life sentence in prison with parole after 20 years. The maximum sentence is death.
  • They could have settled on the charge “involuntary manslaughter.” There are two sections in this charge, the most serious, according the Ohio Criminal Code, states that while committing or attempting to commit a felony, the accused caused the death of another. It is a first-degree felony, punishable with a maximum 10 years in prison.
  • Another possibility is “reckless homicide,” a charge that means someone recklessly caused the death of another person. It is a third-degree felony that carries a maximum five years in prison.
  • Or grand jurors can issue a “no bill” — a decision not to indict someone, usually for lack of evidence.
        On Sunday, religious leaders called for peace. And as city leaders pleaded for calm, police prepared for violence.

        The Rev. Damon Lynch III, an Over-the-Rhine minister and co-chairman of Mayor Charlie Luken's new race-relations panel, urged people to pray for both men's families — and for the city.

        “Ultimately,” he said, “we are all seeking the same things — justice and peace.”

        Sunday, Mr. Allen gave the 24 hours' notice he promised — time for police and the public to get ready for the decision.

        Jurors could indict the officer on charges ranging from murder to reckless homicide. Or, they could decline to charge him.

        Either way, city and community leaders fear a repeat of the unrest that rocked Over-the-Rhine and other neighborhoods after Mr. Thomas, 19, was shot after a foot pursuit.

        “What people have to understand is that they have to respect the decision of the grand jury,” Mr. Luken said Sunday.

        After the worst rioting to strike Cincinnati since 1968, Mr. Luken — hoping in November to be Cincinnati's first directly elected mayor in more than 75 years — formed a race relations commission.

        The group, called Cincinnati Community Action Now, will examine the city's racial tensions and explore such problems as housing, employment and education.

        Mr. Thomas' mother, Angela Leisure, said she will spend today praying: “Prayer changes things. Through my prayers, I have found comfort. My actual hope for this whole thing is that God's will be done, and not man's.”

        Whatever happens, city authorities say they will be prepared.

        Speculation about the outcome has been rampant for weeks, even before jurors started hearing evidence Thursday.

        Hamilton County sheriff's deputies were to start working 12-hour shifts today. Some Cincinnati officers will be doing the same.

        Cincinnati City Manager John Shirey would not discuss specifics of the city's preparations. But city police, he said, are coordinating efforts with the Ohio State Highway Patrol and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department.

        And in a repeat of what unfolded during the worst of the April rioting, Cincinnati firefighters said they were told police would begin escorting them this afternoon on calls into potentially dangerous neighborhoods.

Fearing reaction
               Word of the impending announcement began to spread through the city quickly, making its way to Eden Park by Sunday evening. Predictions varied on the grand jury's decision and how the city will react.

        “Everybody's been dissecting the ramifications if it's this way or that way,” said Hilliard Herring, one of 10 Cincinnati Human Relations Commission volunteer monitors who circulate through the young crowd that regularly gathers in the city park Sundays.

        “If the verdict comes down and they're not going to indict him, they're going to riot again,” said Nakia Valentine, a 20-year-old University of Cincinnati student who lives in Mount Healthy.

        Ebony Bass, 23, also a UC student, said city leaders need to devise a plan to improve police-community relations.

        “Basically people are just tired of getting harassed,” she said. “You have to show people you're going to change things. It's more like a rebellion than a riot.”

        John Queen, 75, of Kennedy Heights, said he doesn't believe there will be additional violence, no matter what the grand jury decides.

        “I think the community will be disappointed if (Officer Roach) doesn't get indicted, but I don't think there'll be any more (violence).”

        Fraternal Order of Police President Keith Fangman said he, too, hopes everyone will respect the grand jury's decision.

        “There have been many in the black community, including black leaders, who have stated that anything short of a felony murder indictment and they're going to burn the city down,” Mr. Fangman said.

        Eleven times since March 2000, Mr. Thomas was stopped, by nine Cincinnati officers. At the time of his death, Mr. Thomas was wanted for 12 misdemeanor traffic citations — mostly for driving without a license — and two outstanding warrants for running from two other policemen.

Churches open
               The Rev. Mr. Lynch said he and other religious leaders will walk through Over-the-Rhine after the decision has been announced.

        “The one thing that I think will come from this is a renewed sense of purpose for the people in the churches and synagogues and mosques,” he said Sunday.

        His church, New Prospect Baptist at Findlay and Elm streets, will remain open through the night, as will other religious centers in Over-the-Rhine.

        Cecil Thomas, director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, sent volunteers to walk the neighborhood Sunday, talking to people and opening communication channels. They will return today, he said.

        “We're looking at it from the standpoint of, "How can we minimize the effect if there is no indictment?'” Mr. Thomas said. “(We're) telling them we understand the frustration, but that violence is not the way to respond.”

        The ministers also are promising people they'll be back to pick them up for the May 19 job fair to be held at Taft High School in the West End. The fair is part of a $2.2 million plan by city and business leaders to provide 3,000 summer jobs.

        That news, Mr. Thomas hopes, will help deter more violence by showing that significant, more long-term solutions are in the works.

        Streets were calm in Over-the-Rhine Sunday evening. Many people had not yet heard of today's announcement.

        But business owners were tense. Some had taken precautions for potential vandalism; others still had windows and doors boarded up from last month's riots.

        “We're a little nervous because what we went through was bad enough,” said Elizabeth Finferanjen, manager of the Circle A Market. “It was bad for the neighborhood and bad for the community, period. But we're not going to board up our windows. If they break them, we'll just fix them again.”

        Others echoed the sentiment of Mr. Thomas' mother, leaving it all up to a higher power.

        “It's hard to say,” said Wayne Ruffin, 33, of Kennedy Heights. “Being a police officer, I don't think he's going to be prosecuted.

        “I put it in God's hands.”

        Jennifer Mrozowski and William A. Weathers of the Enquirer contributed to this report.


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