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Transcript of Attorney General Investigation into Daniel Prude’s Death Opens Secret World of a Grand Jury

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

Attorney General Letitia James on Feb. 23, 2021, said she wanted the transcripts of the grand jury to be released. She made them public on April 16. File photo

The grand jury that heard evidence into circumstances of the death of Daniel Prude voted 15 to 5 not to indict any officers of the Rochester Policde Department on the charge of criminally negligent homicide.

The results and the charge were contained in the 1,000-plus pages of transcripts released by New York state Attorney General Letitia James on April 16.

To read the transcript of all nine sessions, go to ag.ny.gov/press-release/2021/attorney-general-james-releases-grand-jury-proceedings-related-death-daniel-prude.

The transcripts detailed testimony from more than 30 witnesses and listed more than 60 pieces of evidence looking into the actions of officers Francisco Santiago, Troy Talladay and Mark Vaughn. Two of the three Rochester officers under indictment testified. Normally, people who testify before a grand jury are granted immunity from prosecution, but the officers waived that protection.

The names of all witnesses were blacked out. Even so, it was possible to identify some of the witnesses by how they described themselves in relation to the cases. Members of the grand jury were referred to as “a juror.” The only names were those of the attorneys from the AG’s office — Jennifer Sommers, deputy chief of special investigations, and Mark Smith.

When James came to Rochester in February to announce the grand jury had not indicted any officers in the death of Daniel Prude in March 2020, she declined to reveal the charge or the vote, citing the secrecy of grand jury proceedings.

Several hours after saying the archaic system needs to change to promote accountability, she issued a news release that a judge would allow her to release the minutes.

“This nation has a long and painful history of injustice, and every day, we are working to create a fairer and more equal system,” James said in a news release accompanying the transcripts. “Our efforts to balance the scales of justice and ensure accountability can only go so far in the absence of transparency. We took the unprecedented action of seeking to release the grand jury transcripts because the public deserves to know what happened in these proceedings. …”

When she announced the grand jury’s decision, she said her office presented an extensive case and sought a different outcome and that people across the county would be disappointed.

The minutes provide insight into a legal system often dramatized but which is far more detailed than anything seen in the movies or on TV. That is particularly true of grand juries, which have been steeped in secrecy.

“Grand jury is different than a trial jury,” Sommers told its members. “So, when you watch Law and Order or those types of things, I think that’s kind of the jury that most people are familiar with.”

Sommers and Smith spent the first of nine meetings explaining the role of a grand jury and how it determines whether someone should be charged with a crime – not whether a person committed a crime.

It wasn’t until all the testimony had been heard that Sommers and Smith presented the charge of criminally negligent homicide.

They explained the legal basis for the charge: that “a person acts with criminal negligence with respect to a death when, a person engages in blameworthy conduct so serious that it create or contributes to a risk that another person’s death will occur. The risk that another person’s death will occur must be substantial and unjustifiable. A person must also fail to perceive that risk.”

They gave detailed explanations of what constitutes cause and conduct that is an actual contributory cause and that the death was reasonably foreseeable as a result of the conduct. It was not required that death was an inevitable result or even a most likely result.

They laid out when an officer can use physical force and to the extent the officer believes it to be necessary.

They also explained what constituted the charge and parsed each word. In order to indict any or all of the officers, legally sufficient evidence must be presented in painstaking detail.

Of the 23 individuals seated for the grand jury, and 16 had to be present for testimony to proceed. Twelve votes were needed for a decision, which did not have to be unanimous. The transcripts do not have what was said among the grand jurors. Those conversations and deliberations remain secret.