New video released by the family of a man killed by police in DeLand, Fla., shows how an officer ran him over with his car as he ran through a vegetable garden. The family is calling for an independent investigation by state and federal agencies, after a grand jury decision last week not to file criminal charges against officer James Harris.
Marlon Brown, who was 38 when he died in May, was being pulled over for an alleged seatbelt violation when he got out of the car and started running. Officers were following him in a police car when Harris sped to the scene from behind. The released video shows Harris’ car speeding toward Brown — passing the other police car by. When Brown tripped and fell, and the police car kept going.
An internal police investigation found that Harris violated the Department’s chase policy, and he was fired. But the grand jury found there was not enough evidence to criminally prosecute Harris for vehicular homicide. Brown’s family points out that the jury had not seen video of the incident, and questions the testimony of the medical examiner, Shiping Bao, who was fired after his testimony in Trayvon Martin’s case. Bao said the car didn’t strike Brown and that Brown had no broken bones, but that he was pinned underneath the car and suffocated.
“This was an execution in a vegetable garden,” the Brown family attorney, Benjamin Crump, said upon release of the video. “The officer came at Marlon with such velocity that … he could not have stopped.” Crump was also the attorney for Trayvon Martin’s family.
Prosecutors chose to bring the case before a grand jury, which decides in secret whether an individual should be charged. But that was not their only option. Prosecutors could have also made their own unilateral decision, or used a coroner’s inquest — a public hearing at which evidence is presented without the shroud of a grand jury proceeding.
A grand jury, like other juries, is comprised of community members, who could have been biased if they had known that Brown had a criminal history. (Brown is being described in some news coverage as a “known felon.”) Under the rules of evidence applicable to a trial, the prior convictions of a defendant or a victim are typically not admissible to prove a person’s character because of this potential for bias, although they may be admissible to prove other elements of the case. Grand juries, however, are subject to relaxed rules of evidence, and there is no mechanism for enforcing those rules, as no judge or defense attorney is present to object. George R. “Bob” Dekle, a former prosecutor who leads the University of Florida law school’s criminal prosecution clinic, told ThinkProgress he likely would not have considered Brown’s prior convictions relevant and would not have submitted them to a grand jury. He acknowledged, however, that grand jurors frequently ask the prosecutor about prior convictions. He would tell them it is not relevant but would offer to provide the information if they insist on knowing it, in order to “maintain a working relationship with the grand jury.”
Dekle also told the Daytona Beach News-Journal that a prosecution for vehicular homicide would be “iffy” and that the use of a grand jury would give a prosecutor an indication of how a jury was likely to decide. Others interviewed by the newspaper said prosecutors should have used a coroner’s inquest instead, to ensure public accountability.
The city has already paid Brown’s family $550,000 in exchange for their agreement not to further pursue civil litigation.