Former Manhattan Prosecutor Sounds Off on Tamir Rice Case: 'F*ck America! F*ck Y'all!'

On Monday, an Ohio grand jury decided not to bring charges against two police officers in the 2014 shooting death of Tamir Rice. The day after the decision was announced, Ikiesha Al-Shabazz Whittaker, a former Manhattan prosecutor, posted a video on Facebook to express her frustration with the country’s legal system. She also explained, in her expletive-laden rant, why grand juries don’t indict police officers. “I know some things that I don't think you guys know,” she says at the beginning of the video, which has been viewed more than 1.3 million times in 48 hours. “I want to share it with you because my level of outrage and frustration is at an all-time high. I don't want to be in this fucking country no more. I just want to fucking leave.”

Whittaker’s grievances jibe with allegations of prosecutors going soft on law enforcement in other recent grand jury cases. Moreover, she explains, grand juries operate in secret and are closed to the public and to the defense counsel. (Whittaker herself is now a defense attorney who lives in Nassau County.) 

On the day he was killed, Rice, a twelve-year-old boy, was playing with a toy gun — which Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty said was “indistinguishable” from a real gun on a surveillance video. Rice is also shown playing with snowballs outside the local recreation center before Officer Timothy Loehmann shoots him. McGinty called the shooting “a perfect storm of human error.”

“The entire [grand jury] presentation is controlled, is orchestrated by the prosecutor. The evidence that goes in, the witnesses that go in, how the evidence is presented — the spin — prosecutors control the grand jury." She points to the lack of judicial oversight and the prosecutorial power that plays into the grand jury process, recalling the expression of former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals Sol Wachtler, who famously said that prosecutors can get grand juries to "indict a ham sandwich."

“That saying...is fucking true,” says Whittaker. “I indicted motherfuckers for five whole years, OK? And I'm telling you it don't take shit to do it.” She suggests that the only way to put an end to instances of cops avoiding indictment in police shooting cases is to overhaul the grand jury system altogether. “Legislators need to change the way grand jury presentations are conducted,” she says. “You can't keep banging your head against a wall and expect the wall to give!” 

Update: January 2, 4:34 p.m.

Whittaker spoke with the Voice on New Year's Day, after this story was initially posted, in her first media interview about her video. She says she'd been doing other videos about the criminal justice system, and she didn't expect this one to garner as much attention as it did.

“When the Tamir Rice decision came down and I heard the specifics about how the prosecutor did not cross-examine this police officer in the grand jury, I was livid,” says Whittaker. “I just went off.”

She says the coarse language caused some people who shared the video to put up a disclaimer. But she defended using it.

“I’m smart and educated, and I could use really big ten-dollar words, but sometimes I just want to say shit plain, you know? Because the average person is not going to understand the legalese. I know there are people who are not going to appreciate my delivery — it’s not for everyone — but they still shared it. And that’s what is important.”

Whittaker was raised in the projects in Jamaica, Queens. She explains that her goal to practice law was rooted in a desire to help the people she grew up with. Becoming an assistant district attorney was almost like going undercover to learn the system.

“I knew the best way to be a good defense attorney is to know the prosecution. So I went to learn,” she says. “You can’t beat them until you understand how they work. That’s why I beat them all the damn time. And the only time I don’t is when they cheat.”

Whittaker witnessed firsthand the conflicts that emerge from prosecutors working with police officers — the system, she says, is biased toward not holding police accountable.

“You’re dealing with the same cops all the time, so it’s really problematic for the prosecutors who then turn around and try to lock up the people they work with,” says Whittaker. “Kudos to California for taking the lead in not allowing secret grand juries for police officers in shooting cases anymore. There needs to be a special prosecutor appointed for those cases.”

A former adjunct professor at New York Law School, Whittaker says that in addition to her primary mission of educating citizens about the legal system, her point in the video was to get the message to lawmakers.

“It’s making its way to places where it needs to go so the conversation will happen,” she says. “People have to understand what is happening in order to demand the change that is required. Ultimately, we need to change the laws — the criminal procedure, the bail statutes, the discovery laws. It’s way overdue.”

Whittaker also emphasized that her goal was not to bash the country.

“It’s not that I hate America — I hate the America that I live in,” says Whittaker. “I hate having to hug a grieving mother because her son was railroaded in the criminal justice system.”

She adds, “I do ultimately want to leave unless I can affect some change that makes this America the same America white people experience. All I can do is continue to stand in my truth. And I know I’ll continue making these videos.”

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