What Could Criminal Justice Reform Look Like Under a New County Prosecutor?
Gary Tyack, former judge for the Tenth District Court of Appeals, is running for Franklin County Prosecutor against incumbent Ron O’Brien, who has been at the job for over 23 years.
The Tyack campaign says that while O’Brien has been at the helm, Republican corruption at the Ohio Statehouse has been ignored and racial disparities in our criminal justice system have grown.
O’Brien, however, has long been the ire of police reform advocates. O’Brien has reportedly prosecuted just a single police officer for misconduct during his tenure. Most recently, his invoking of the felony murder rule against then 16-year-old Masonique Saunders, who was initially charged with the murder of her boyfriend Julius Tate Jr. after he was fatally shot by Columbus police officer Eric Richards in late 2018, has drawn similar criticism.
Tyack claims this would not be the case if he is elected county prosecutor. He says communities need to know their concerns are being heard.
“I plan on being very active in the different communities and helping them to fully realize what’s going on, and that there is going to be just a difference in the way that cases are addressed,” he said in a recent phone interview with Columbus Underground. “Their concerns are being taken care of and not just swept under the rug by the prosecutor’s office.”
Just ahead of Election Day, Judge Tyack reflects on just what kind of job he thinks the current prosecutor has done and what a prosecutor’s office under his leadership could look like.
Taijuan Moorman: What are some of the issues that persuaded you to run for county prosecutor? What kind of job has the incumbent done and what do you think you could do better?
Judge Gary Tyack: Well, I decided to run because I was not pleased with a couple of aspects of the current prosecutor’s office. I was not pleased about the fact that the office has no people of color in important positions within the office. And I think that for the office to be truly respected in the community, it has to look a little bit like the people for whom it is it is trying to represent.
So the current person has been there a long time. I’ve been very concerned about the fact that he’s felt it is his responsibility to cover the Fraternal Order of Police and not to end up pursuing people who shoot members of the community. I had a 14-year-old boy who was shot and nothing came of it, even though he was driving away from the police officer at the time of the shooting.
So I felt that there needed to be something in the office that was not [on the side of], ‘Let’s cover the police officers,’ that needed to try and create more balance. I think also the office doesn’t spend enough time doing things other than criminal law. The current prosecutor has cocooned himself in criminal law and has basically avoided all the other major issues that the office has to deal with in being the attorney for the county commissioners, for the treasurer, for the auditor, for the Clerk of Courts. So that’s part of why I’m in this whole thing. I just think I can do it better.
TM: What does our criminal justice system look like under County Prosecutor Tyack and, if you win, what changes will residents see going through the system?
GT: The first thing they will see is a sustained effort to hire people of color and people with different backgrounds into the office. So if you come to court, you won’t be, for instance, an African-American who sees everybody in the courtroom as white and are afraid that you’re not going to be treated the way you should be. Second, the Fraternal Order of Police will have to understand that if a police officer shoots an unarmed African-American, I will pursue the officer who does that. There is too much feeling in that group right now that a current prosecutor will just protect them and nothing will ever come of a shooting. I think there are lots of other things that can be done to improve the office, but those are two of the big ones upfront.
TM: How will you assure accountability from the Columbus Division of Police?
GT: Probably 90% or at least 80% of police officers go through a whole career [and never] shoot anyone. So you’re going to end up having a situation where a lot of officers on the department are going to feel pretty good about having the bad apples pursued, and then [those] who do not shoot people and don’t create problems be able to function naturally. So I think that part of the problem is that the bad apples in the department have the feeling that, ‘It doesn’t matter what I do or who I shoot, the current county prosecutor will protect me and save me from having to be responsible for that shooting.’
TM: One of the issues brought up locally in the last few years when we talk about police reform is felony murder rule. Some officials in Columbus have been against eliminating it. Do you have any thoughts on whether felony murder rule should be ended, reformed, or left as is?
GT: When I first started practicing law, the felony murder rule did not exist in Ohio. We did not use it. And after probably 20, 30 years, they finally decided that they wanted to have a felony murder rule in this state. In death penalty cases and murder cases, when I got started practicing law, you had to purposely cause the death of another. And it didn’t matter if there was another felony involved or not. And then the legislature decided that they would try to make Ohio the same as a lot of other states. So if you were committing a felony and somebody died, then you could be charged with murder. You didn’t have to have the purpose of causing the death of another. You didn’t have to have the purpose of killing another. So I frankly would like to see us go back to the way that the law was in the early part of the Ohio criminal code that is currently in effect, and then ended up not having the felony murder rule as part of it. I really think that it is a mistake to end up requiring nothing in the way of a purpose to kill. I think you need to have the purpose to kill for it to be a proper murder. And that’s something that also will weigh into my decisions about whether the death penalty should be sought.
TM: A part of your platform talks about helping low-level and non-violent offenders expunge their records to provide them better economic opportunities, as well as diversion programs to address the school-to-prison pipeline. Can you speak to that more?
GT: I spent over 24 years as a court of appeals judge in this town. And part of what was really distressing in recent years is that the prosecutor’s office was fighting every expungement, no matter what we had — African-American judges and white judges who both were granting expungements because it was the right thing to do [and give them] a chance to get on with their lives. They had made a mistake, maybe five, 10, 20 years before, but it shouldn’t be held against them now. And the prosecutor’s office was appealing all of them. Over and over and over again, even if there was a reason [for] the trial judge to grant it. So the problem with expungements has been going on for many years, and you need a different attitude at the prosecutor’s office toward expungements.
Another fact is we now know that the average human being doesn’t end up having a full function of their brain until they’re like 24, 25. It doesn’t make any sense at all to end up limiting someone’s whole lifestyle for the rest of their lives, because something happened before their brain was even able to appreciate the problems. I think it is incredibly important that this whole area, the initial convictions, and especially as to the expungements, be viewed with a new eye.
TM: Is there anything you want to add?
GT: Well, this is a topic that could require hours and hours and hours of conversation. And you hit a lot of really important things. We need to be able, frankly, to redo the whole juvenile court system and realize that we aren’t dealing with kids with complete brains at that time. Sending somebody who is 18 to prison for 30 years is utterly absurd. Their brain isn’t fully developed, and there are other things that can be done with that. So we need to be able to take a hard look at the whole juvenile court system, and frankly in Ohio, redo the whole thing. Now that’ll be more of the job of the legislature than the prosecutor, but if the prosecutor has the right attitude, it’ll make it easier for the right outcomes to happen.
For more information on Gary Tyack’s campaign, visit tyackforprosecutor.com.