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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Defendant says his acquittal is also vindication

Please click onto the COMMENTS for the story.

5 Comments:

Blogger Bob said...

'Obstructing legal process' charge has been rethought by authorities
BY EMILY GURNON
Pioneer Press
Article Last Updated: 12/01/2007 02:38:34 PM CST


Zachary McGraw knelt on the floor of the hallway outside a Ramsey County courtroom Friday and thanked God.

Moments before, a jury had delivered its verdict: not guilty of obstructing legal process.

It was a personal victory.

But McGraw's case became bigger than just him.

His run-in with St. Paul police during a small family party in his back yard, along with a story in the Pioneer Press, helped spark changes in the way the city attorney's office and the police deal with confrontations between police and residents, officials said.

McGraw, 32, was charged with obstruction, or resisting arrest, after a noise complaint brought police to his home in the 800 block of Charles Avenue on May 6, 2006.

McGraw was playing cards with his wife, his brother and his sister-in-law in his back yard, celebrating a job he had just gotten. The officers came through a closed fence, shined a flashlight on McGraw and said they were police.

During the trial in Ramsey County District Court, the prosecution alleged that McGraw was belligerent and swore at them repeatedly, turning a routine police call into a melee. McGraw was kicked, sprayed with Mace and hit with a Taser.

McGraw argued police saw a black man and expected to encounter a thug, not a law-abiding family man, and used excessive force. He accused them of racism and took the misdemeanor case to trial to prove a point, he said.

"This fight is for every other citizen who goes through the same or similar circumstances," he said.

The St. Paul chapter of the NAACP complained publicly that McGraw was a prime example of a person of color wrongly slapped with an obstruction charge in an encounter with police. The nonprofit Neighborhood Justice Center took up his cause and led the defense.

The NAACP also called the Pioneer Press, saying they knew obstruction charges were increasingly common. The paper investigated, gathering numbers from the city attorney's office and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

The results "confirmed what we were saying all along," said Nathaniel Khaliq, president of the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP. "We just had some anecdotal information about it, so this confirmed our worst fears, that this was, in fact, happening."

The research indicated the number of misdemeanor obstructing legal process arrests climbed from 126 in 1992 to 560 in 2005, a 344 percent increase, while total misdemeanors handled by the city attorney's office rose by a little more than 60 percent.

City Attorney John Choi said Friday that the Pioneer Press story prompted reforms.

The data "suggesting that obstructing legal process cases presented to our office had been rising led me to believe that we needed to make sure that we were doing our job as prosecutors in screening these cases properly," he said.

"It was clear to me that maybe things were not right between the community and police, and we as prosecutors have a part in this."

Choi's office undertook a "very extensive" effort, he said. It revised its charging manual, the guidelines prosecutors use in deciding whether and when to file criminal charges; retrained prosecutors; and began working with police and community members on a restorative justice program.

The update in the charging manual "makes us better, more consistent, uniform and thoughtful," Choi said.

With 16,000 misdemeanor cases coming to his office each year, the 23 attorneys responsible for them can begin to feel like it's an assembly line, he said.

"This effort said, Stop. Let's stop the assembly line. Rethink what we're trying to accomplish with (obstructing legal process) cases and make sure that as we are thinking about managing our caseload, we're doing it in a consistent and fair way."

The police have played a role, too.

Officers were given "extensive training" in "additional skills that we hope will reduce the amount of (such) cases," Chief John Harrington said this year.

"I think there are other ways of defusing and gaining control other than simply making an arrest," Harrington said.

Restorative justice is a growing international movement where parties are encouraged to deal with conflict and crime in a collaborative way.

In the case of the obstructing legal process arrests, Choi said, the restorative justice process has just begun. He has been working with St. Paul police officer Paul Strong, the NAACP, the Dispute Resolution Center and University of St. Thomas law professor Nekima Levy-Pounds.

Choi hopes to resolve six to 12 cases a year through the process, with obstruction charges dismissed in exchange for sitting down with police, community representatives and mediators and hashing out disagreements.

Khaliq said he's encouraged but that it's just the beginning.

"A whole lot more needs to be done," especially within the police department, he said. "We cannot continue to have these kinds of incidents. ... Most of these are black men and women (charged), and there's something amiss there."

McGraw said the verdict restored the thing he had lost the night police came to his back yard.

"That peace that was stomped from me in the yard, and Tased - I have that back," McGraw said.

Attorney Carolina Lamas, executive director of the Neighborhood Justice Center, said she believed the testimony of McGraw's white, middle-aged neighbors may have swayed the jurors - five white, one black.

Both neighbors testified they saw police kicking McGraw as he lay face down on the ground, his hands cuffed behind his back.

Overall, Lamas said, "the verdict gives me hope that people can see there are so many more elements that go into a situation like this than just the 'good cops' vs. the 'bad guy.' "

Mara H. Gottfried contributed to this report.

Emily Gurnon can be reached at egurnon@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5522.

10:12 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

I hope Mr. McGraw seeks retribution from the city.

The days of civil rights violations are coming to an end in this city.

I am equally surprized the NAACP even got involved. They have been sitting on their ass for to long.

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

More proof the city of Saint Paul discrimnates against blacks.

11:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the first of many bad verdicts to come against the city of St Paul. Keep on laughing Kathy, when the juries start to convene, the end will be near as your precious little city council gang is going to be shown for what they really are nto what you pretend to be.

9:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where is Eric Mitchell the mouthpiece for the African Americans. I would think he would be here talking against this type of behavior. Oh that's right, he only sticks up for the city.

9:31 AM  

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