Jurors in Daniel Prude Case Voted Overwhelmingly in Favor of Police
Mr. Prude’s death last year became part of a fraught national conversation around racism and brutality in policing.,
A grand jury reviewing the death of Daniel Prude, a Black man who lost consciousness while being detained by the police in Rochester, N.Y., last year, and later died, voted 15 to 5 not to charge three officers with criminally negligent homicide, according to transcripts of grand jury proceedings that were released on Friday.
The transcripts provide a rare glimpse inside judicial proceedings that are usually kept secret, and were made public at a moment when national attention is focused on two other cases where officers stand accused of killing Black men in their custody.
Mr. Prude’s death has become part of a fraught national conversation around racism and brutality in policing, spurred in large part by the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis last year. The officer in that case, Derek Chauvin, is currently on trial for murder.
The grand jury minutes in Mr. Prude’s case also reveal the high burden that prosecutors sometimes face in bringing charges against police officers. Criminal charges have been rare in these instances, and grand juries often decide not to indict officers accused of killing people in their custody.
During the hearings, jurors expressed confusion over expert testimonies that appeared to conflict. One juror asked why the officers — who found Mr. Prude naked on a snowy street, put a hood over his head and pressed him into the pavement — moved unhurriedly after he lost consciousness.
“The way they held him, avoiding the respiratory or ventilatory structures was — was — it would be textbook in my mind,” said one expert witness, identified as a University of California San Diego medical center doctor whose name was redacted from the transcript.
But a second expert witness, identified as a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, appeared to disagree: “The decision to keep him on his stomach for that period of time was — was unreasonable and against police practice,” the expert said, adding he should have been rolled over and the pressure on his back released.
Bodycam video of Mr. Prude’s confrontation with the police was released in September, after his death, despite apparent attempts by officials to conceal what happened. In the video, Mr. Prude, naked, can be seen being handcuffed and pushed facedown on the street as snow falls, a mesh hood over his head. The images, echoing painful memories of the lynching of Black men in America, sparked protests in Rochester and around the country.
Mr. Prude’s confrontation with the police occurred on a snowy night in March of last year, after he bolted out of his brother’s home in Rochester, shoeless in an erratic state. His brother called 911 for help.
The police who responded to the emergency call found Mr. Prude naked, and shouting that he had the coronavirus. They handcuffed him, and placed a mesh hood over his head. Though he was restrained, an officer pressed him into the pavement until he vomited and lost consciousness, an interaction captured on body cameras worn by the police.
Mr. Prude died a week later, after he was taken off life support.
Don Thompson, a lawyer for Joe Prude, Mr. Prude’s brother, said the minutes, and the jury’s decision not to indict any officers showed the excessive leeway police are given when using force in the course of doing their job.
“I’m infuriated,” he said. “Who other than somebody who wears a special costume for their work, gets this kind of deference in a homicide case? No one.”
Official police reports said that Mr. Prude died of an overdose, but an investigation by the Rochester medical examiner determined it was a homicide, with asphyxiation as a cause of death. It was not until the summer, when lawyers for Mr. Prude’s family petitioned for the release of the footage of the incident, that the circumstances surrounding Mr. Prude’s death were made public.
Seven officers who were on the scene of Mr. Prude’s arrest were later suspended, and the city’s police chief was fired for his involvement in obscuring what happened. The minutes unsealed Friday show that the attorney general’s office asked the grand jury to consider charges against only three of the 7 officers; the names of the officers and all other witnesses and jurors are redacted in the transcripts released on Friday.
All of the officers remain suspended from the force, according to a spokeswoman for the Rochester Police Department.
Over the course of nine grand jury proceedings, one juror asked why no one offered to cover Mr. Prude, who was naked, with a blanket. Another asked why it appeared, even after Mr. Prude was unconscious, that the officers and emergency medical technicians at the scene did not swiftly aide him.
“It didn’t seem like anyone was really rushing,” the juror said. “So, no one seemed to be concerned that there was a problem?”
After the footage of Mr. Prude’s death was made public, New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, convened a grand jury to review evidence in the case. Last month, Ms. James announced that the grand jury declined to indict any of the officers.
At the time, Ms. James expressed disappointment with the decision; the office had petitioned the Monroe County Court judge to release the transcripts from the grand jury’s investigation, citing public interest. Those records are typically sealed, but the judge granted the request in February.
On Friday afternoon, Ms. James’s office released the transcripts, adding that this was the first time that grand jury proceedings in a case of a police-involved death had been made public in New York.
The grand jury sat for nine sessions over about 45 hours from October to February, Ms. James’s office said. They heard from dozens of witnesses and reviewed bodycam footage, 911 calls and other recordings.
Lawyers for the officers felt that the released minutes further exonerated their clients. Daniel Mastrella, a lawyer for Officer Troy Taladay, said that he believed his client was one of the three officers targeted by the grand jury investigation. Officer Taladay was one of two officers who voluntarily testified, according to his lawyer.
“He explained exactly what he did, and I would say we were all very fortunate that incident was recorded on various body-worn cameras,” Mr. Mastrella said, adding that he was “confident” Mr. Taladay had committed no misconduct in Mr. Prude’s death.
Michael Schiano, a lawyer for Officer Francisco Santiago, who was on the scene when Mr. Prude was arrested but did not testify, said no evidence of wrongdoing was presented to the grand jury.
“It’s obvious that the evidence supported the fact that these officers did nothing wrong, and if they could have found an expert to testify the other way they probably would have, but they clearly couldn’t,” said Mr. Schiano.
After jurors voted overwhelmingly not to indict the three officers, one juror commended the prosecutors for their work putting together a thorough case, according to the transcript.
“If it wasn’t for everything that you presented to us, I don’t think anybody would have come up with a decision,” the juror, whose vote was not made public, said. “You worked very hard and I’m sure nobody took it lightly. It was a very serious case. It’s horrible what happened to him.”
Benjamin Weiser, Troy Closson and Nicole Hong contributed reporting.