On December 28, an Ohio grand jury decided not to bring charges against two Cleveland police officers in the 2014 shooting death of twelve-year-old 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 1.8 million times in the past week. “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 spoke with the Voice on New Year’s Day in her first media interview about the viral post. She said she’d been doing other videos about the criminal justice system over the past several months and 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,” Whittaker said. “I just went off.”
Her grievances jibe with allegations of prosecutors going soft on law enforcement in other recent grand jury cases. Moreover, she explains in her video, 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.)
“The entire [grand jury] presentation is controlled, is orchestrated by the prosecutor,” she says in the video. “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 in the video. “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.”
Whittaker was raised in the projects in Jamaica, Queens, and her goal to practice law was rooted in a desire to help the people she grew up with. Becoming an assistant district attorney, a position she held from 2001 to 2006, 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 said. “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.” Whittaker points to the state of California as a model for how to handle cases that involve citizens being killed by police officers: In August, the state passed a law banning grand juries in police shooting cases, instead requiring that the jurisdiction involved appoint a special prosecutor. “Kudos to California for taking the lead in not allowing secret grand juries for police officers in shooting cases anymore,” Whittaker said.
Her video garnered strong reactions, both positive and negative, from points all along the political spectrum. Many who watched it left comments praising Whittaker for speaking so frankly about the criminal justice system and racial disparities. But others have challenged her to make good on her promise to leave the country, even calling into question her legal background.
When asked if she was worried about any adverse response or potential blowback surrounding her public comments, Whittaker said she’s solely concerned about making a difference.
“People have this perception of lawyers, that we’re stoic and conservative and unapproachable,” she said. “I didn’t want that to be the energy. There are lawyers like me that hear you, we understand, and we care.”
She dismisses criticism of the abrasive language she used in the video (she also insists she doesn’t swear in court, “though I’ve often wanted to!”).
“I’m smart and educated,” she said. “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 [in the video] — it’s not for everyone — but they still shared it. And that’s what is important.”
There was a time when lawyers were discouraged from speaking candidly about the legal system, says Dr. Delores Jones-Brown, law professor and an expert on race, crime, and the administration of justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She applauds lawyers like Whittaker who feel the responsibility to assert realities about the “clear dividing line” between those who believe the system works and those who don’t.
“There’s no ethical violation in stating how easy it is to get indictments,” says Jones-Brown. She mentions that visible bias exists within the justice system, pointing to the recent comments made by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia suggesting that black students might be better off in a “slower-track school,” and warns that Whittaker faces a contentious battle ahead, particularly from those hostile toward anyone critical of the legal system.
“She could appear in front of a judge who doesn’t share her politics or undermines her role as a defense attorney,” says Jones-Brown. “But I don’t think she’d put herself out there like this if she didn’t think she was skilled enough to handle it — she’s courageous to speak from inside the system.”
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 said. “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 emphasizes that her goal was not to bash the country, but to make a powerful statement about what the current legal system has done to it.
“It’s not that I hate America — I hate the America that I live in. I hate having to hug a grieving mother because her son was railroaded in the criminal justice system.”
She added, “I do ultimately want to leave unless I can effect 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.”