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The Cuyahoga Prosecutor's Race is Unfolding Against the Backdrop of Tamir Rice and Michael Brelo

Prosecutor Tim McGinty

It’s a political race that, usually, generates only moderate interest at best.  But not this year. Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty is facing a tough challenge from former Assistant Prosecutor Michael O’Malley.                                                                                                           

It’s been a tough year politically for Prosecutor Tim McGinty.

First, there was the not- guilty verdict in the trial of Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo for his role in the fatal shooting of two unarmed suspects.

Then, there was the grand-jury decision not to indict two police officers in the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

Changes in deadly police shooting investigations 
When he ran for prosecutor four years ago, McGinty, a former trial attorney and judge, promised to send all deadly police-shooting cases to an independent investigator and to make the report public before deciding if the case should go to a grand jury.

As prosecutor, his office has handled 20 deadly force cases this way so far.  McGinty says the new procedure didn’t gain much public attention until the Brelo case and that he pushed for Brelo’s prosecution.

Tim McGinty
Prosecutor Tim McGinty has made changes in police shooting investigations part of his first term.

"With the (Ohio) attorney general being the independent agency, (he) gathered a thorough investigation and put out a full report so the public knew the facts -- and they put out the film.

"In each of these case I’ve insisted they put out the films so we don’t have the problems of Ferguson or we now see in Chicago have, that the people wonder what happened. Chicago people are very angry that a year later they get to see the death of the civilian.”

In the Tamir Rice case, McGinty had the county sheriff’s office conduct the investigation. McGinty released the sheriff’s report as well as subsequent reports presented to the grand jury.

Two issues
McGinty’s challenger, Michael O’Malley, takes issue with this for two reasons: 1) presenting the grand jury with expert testimony saying the officers acted within the law, and 2) contrary to the law, he contends, making that testimony public.

Too much information released, too often?
“To release that publicly had an extreme detrimental effect. I think the case dragged on too long. Perhaps the prosecutors was hoping the emotions surrounding the case would perhaps decline. But that just did not turn out to be the case. And quite frankly, the continual release of information had the effect of continuing to pick the scab off an open wound in this community.”

Michael O'Malley
Michael O'Malley at his campaign kick-off last month

O’Malley says he decided to run against McGinty before the controversial Rice outcome. He's a former Cleveland city councilman who served as a first assistant prosecutor under the previous prosecutor. And, he spent more than two years with McGinty in the office.

O’Malley criticizes McGinty for dismantling successful office programs such as community outreach efforts, and hurting moral by not listening to other opinions. He says he learned the importance of cooperation as a city council member and would draw on that if elected.

McGinty says O’Malley simply saw the prosecutor’s position as vulnerable because of the Rice controversy and jumped into the race.   

A time of change
Cleveland State University political science professor David Elkins says McGinty is in a unique position. In 2008, then prosecutor Bill Mason was unopposed in the primary and easily won re-election. But Elkins says the political and governmental landscape changed when McGinty first ran in 2012.

Picture of CSU professor David Elkins
CSU political science professor David Elkins says the prosecutor's position was altered slighty by the county's change in government.

“By contrast Mr. McGinty was a challenger for essentially, not a new positon, but a quasi-new position after the reformation of the new county government. And as such he had several challengers in the primary and he prevailed but it wasn’t a majority vote. And to that extent when it did come time for the general election he won by 75 percent. In that context one would have thought that maybe prosecutor McGinty would have had a relatively easy pass coming into the primary election, but of course that’s not the case.”

Anger in the African-American community       Elkins agrees that McGinty’s handling of the Brelo case and the grand jury decision not to indict the officers in the Rice killing are factors, especially in the African-American community.                                                           One of that community’s leaders, Cleveland Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, wants McGinty out.

Photo of Congresswoman Fudge
Credit U.S. Congress
U.S. Congress
Congresswoman Marcia Fudge want McGinty out.

“Whether you agree with the outcome or not, it was a poorly handled case. I believe Prosecutor McGinty played a little fast and loose with the law. The law of Ohio says the grand jury is a secret proceeding. For him to leak information that was favorable to his position, in my opinion, was a violation of the law.”

McGinty denies he violated any grand jury laws.             Fudge believes O’Malley has a better temperament for the job, and that he would work better with the African-American community.    

The primary winner is likely the next prosecutor
The winner of the March 15th Democratic primary will likely be Cuyahoga County’s prosecutor since no Republican challenger has emerged, though petitions are being circulated to put African-American attorney Annette Butler on the November ballot to run as an iIndependent.  The petitions must be submitted by March 14th.