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Politics and Government

Governor appoints attorney general as special prosecutor

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (right) signs an executive order to make New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman a special prosecutor.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has appointed the state attorney general as a temporary  special prosecutor to over see cases where a civilian is killed by a police officer.

Cuomo, saying there is a “crisis of confidence” in the criminal justice system, signed an executive order to have the state’s attorney general  take over from local district attorneys, anytime a unarmed civilian is killed in an encounter with police, and there are questions about what happened.

Cuomo says if a civilian is killed and there’s questions about whether or not they were armed and dangerous, the AG could examine  those cases, too, at his discretion.

The appointment of a special prosecutor was prompted by a number of recent incidents where civilians were killed by police, including Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who police put in a choke hold after Garner was accused of  selling illegal cigarettes on the sidewalk . A grand jury decided not to indict the officers who were involved in the incident.

Constance Malcolm is the mother of Ramarley Graham, who was unarmed when he was shot by a police officer who said he who thought Graham was reaching for a gun. The officer was charged with manslaughter, but  the case was later thrown out on a technicality.  

“We’re in a boat that nobody wants to be in,” said Malcom. “It’s very crowded. We don’t need anybody else in this boat.”

Cuomo was joined at the event where he made the announcement by a number of legislators, including several Senate Democrats, who support having a special prosecutor.  

But Republicans hold the majority of votes in the Senate, and many GOP members disagree with the governor’s approach. Cuomo initially sought to create a special monitor to look into questionable cases where an unarmed civilian dies after an encounter with police, but he faced resistance from GOP Senators. The governor said in late June when  he announced he’d issue the executive order, that it was not his first choice.  

Senate GOP Leader John Flanagan says philosophically, the Republicans don’t want to change long standing traditions in the justice system.

“That  was a radical departure from a grand jury process that has existed for like 200 years,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan says he heard from DAs who don’t support a special prosecutor.

“I have great respect for DAs,” said Flanagan who says district attorneys are elected by the public, which is a “great equalizing factor."

“If they’re doing their job, they’ll get reelected,” said Flanagan. “If they are not, the people will take them out.”

Cuomo says he will try again for a special monitor in the 2016 session. But Flanagan says the Senate Republicans are likely to continue to oppose the idea, but he says he’s willing to talk.

And Flanagan says since the governor’s executive order appointing the AG as special prosecutor only lasts a year, everyone will be able to take a second look.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman calls his appointment a  first step toward major changes in the criminal justice system.

“We are starting to reexamine the premise of our entire system of mass arrest and mass incarceration,” said Schneiderman. “That era is coming to an end.”