WASHINGTON – The family of 12-year-old Tamir Rice is asking the Justice Department to reopen its investigation into the boy’s 2014 shooting and to convene a grand jury that would consider charges against the Cleveland police officers involved in his death.
Drawing from President Joe Biden’s promise to reinvigorate investigations of police actions and Attorney General Merrick Garland’s pledge to prioritize civil rights, Rice’s family is asking the Justice Department to revisit evidence that the previous administration deemed insufficient to warrant prosecution.
“The election of President Biden, your appointment, and your commitment to the rule of law, racial justice, and police reform give Tamir’s family hope that the chance for accountability is not lost forever,” according to a letter to Garland by attorneys for the Rice family.
Rice’s death at the hands of police helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement and was, for years, part of the national conversation on use of force against people of color. The deaths of Black citizens during police encounters have continued to ignite nationwide protests and calls for reform. The renewed plea from Rice’s family comes as the country watches the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd, while in Chicago, police body camera footage released Thursday appears to show 13-year-old Adam Toledo with his hands up when he was shot.
“Tamir would have been 19 years old in June,” his mother, Samaria Rice, said in a statement. “I’m still in so much pain because no one has been held accountable for the criminal act that took his life.”
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A spokeswoman said the Justice Department did not have a comment.
The department under former President Donald Trump and former Attorney General William Barr declined to pursue criminal charges in Rice’s death, saying there was not enough evidence to prove that Cleveland police officers used excessive force against the boy.
“The evidence in this case fails to definitively establish what happened at the time of the shooting,” according to a lengthy statement from the Justice Department late last year, adding that a key evidence – a video of the shooting – was too grainy to clearly show what had happened.
Officer Timothy Loehmann, who is white, shot and killed Rice on Nov. 22, 2014. Police had received a call about a “guy with a pistol” who was pointing the weapon outside a recreation center in Cleveland. The 12-year-old had spent the day outside the center playing with a pellet gun. Officers did not know that the gun might be a toy or that Rice might be a juvenile, police said.
Surveillance footage shows Rice sitting at a picnic table under a gazebo just before he was shot. The boy later stood up and walked around the table as the police car stopped in front of him. Within seconds, Loehmann got out of the car as it was moving and fired two shots, striking Rice in the abdomen.
Loehmann and another officer, Frank Garmback, both said that they saw Rice reach for his gun and that he was told repeatedly to show his hands. The video, which does not have an audio, does not show Rice’s hands, and it’s not clear from the footage when the boy first saw the officers.
The family’s attorneys dispute the officers’ account, saying the video clearly shows Loehmann immediately opened fire at Rice.
“The most striking feature of this case is the speed in which it all happened. …This is not a situation where the officers engaged in a chase or a scuffle, or a situation where there’s lots of people involved,” said Zoe Salzman, one of the family’s attorneys. “There’s no time for multiple commands. (Loehmann) is shooting (Rice) in less than one second.”
The Justice Department’s investigation into Rice’s death began during the Obama administration. Salzman said the boy’s family met with Obama administration officials and was under the impression that the investigation was ongoing. But “things changed entirely” under the Trump administration, during which the Rice family did not have any official communications with the Justice Department, Salzman said.
Last year, Rice’s family learned from media reports that career prosecutors sought to bring the case before a grand jury in 2017, but department supervisors denied the request two years later, effectively ending the investigation. The statute of limitations for a federal obstruction of justice charge is five years, although there is no such limit to a civil rights violation charge.
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A state grand jury declined to charge Loehmann in 2015. He was fired two years later for lying on his application to the Cleveland Division of Police.
“It’s just incredibly disheartening for the family,” Salzman said. “They understand no one can guarantee a conviction in any case, but they want their chance at justice, and they’ve never gotten that.”
In 2016, the Rice family won a $6 million settlement in a lawsuit against Cleveland. The city admitted no wrongdoing.
In the letter, the attorneys asked to meet with Justice Department officials.
“This case involves the unjustified killing of a child and a prosecution that was thwarted through political abuse,” the letter said.