Update: A grand jury recording bill was passed by the Oregon legislature and is headed to the governor's desk to be signed into law!
This was originally published as a guest column by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
By Irene Kalonji
Like any mother, I had worries and dreams for my children. Will they get a good job? Will they find love? Will I become a grandmother?
Like any mother of black sons, I also worried about their safety with police. How could I not when day after day there are stories of profiling and police violence against young black men?
My worst nightmares came true when my 19-year-old son Christopher was killed by police in our home after we called them for help. Making the nightmare worse, my husband and I have serious doubts about whether the district attorney truly advocated for our son in the investigation into his death.
Christopher struggled with mental health issues. After a rough encounter with police, his mental health suffered and he became convinced he would be killed by law enforcement. On the day he was supposed to appear in court as a result of his police encounter, Christopher had a mental breakdown and locked himself in his room with his gun. We called 911 for help, and so did Christopher from his room.
When the police showed up, Christopher stripped down to his boxer shorts to show that he was unarmed and sat in his window to talk to them. What happened next is unclear. My son was shot and tear gas canisters were thrown into his room. No one checked on him for four hours, while he lay there bleeding on his bedroom floor. Finally, my son was taken to OHSU, but it was too late. It breaks my heart that he died without any of his family by his side.
We weren’t with him when he died because during the standoff, my husband and I were taken to the police station to answer questions about our son’s mental health. We later realized that these interrogations were not to help Christopher, but rather to build justifications for shooting our son. When police finally told us Christopher had been killed, we were overcome with grief. We also felt deeply betrayed.
Did you know that the police investigate themselves when they shoot someone? Then the same district attorney who works side-by-side with police on criminal cases takes the police findings to a grand jury to decide whether or not to bring charges against the officers involved. You won’t be surprised to hear that officers are rarely charged with misconduct under this scheme, but you probably don’t know that here in Oregon, there is hardly any record kept of this process.
My husband and I wanted to know the truth about our son’s death, so we asked for the grand jury proceedings to be recorded. For reasons that still confuse us, the Clackamas County District Attorney’s office refused. We have been told that the only records that exist of the grand jury are one page of handwritten notes and a jury form. And we will need a court order to see even that.
What evidence was the jury shown? What testimony did they hear? Was it a foregone conclusion that the officers who killed my son would not be indicted? I have my suspicions, but the hard truth is that we will probably never know.
There is an easy solution to this problem: Record all grand jury proceedings. The Oregon Legislature is currently considering a bill to do just that, Senate Bill 496. But district attorneys are opposing it. What are they afraid of?
The grief and pain of losing our teenage son has taken its toll on us. We will never be the same. The feeling that justice was not served for Christopher adds to our pain. As a mother, how will I ever find peace? Oregon legislators should support SB 496 to bring transparency to the grand jury process, so that no other family will have to go through what we have.