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OpinionColumnistsLeonard Levitt

Special prosecutor role for Schneiderman fraught with political peril

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was elected

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was elected to office on Nov. 2, 2010. Photo Credit: Getty/Andrew Burton

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's appointment of state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as a special prosecutor to examine police-related killings of unarmed civilians is but a short-term political fix to a more complex problem. That means trouble.

Cuomo's decision stems from the apparent chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, a tragedy on every level:

There was no indictment of Pantaleo, whose arrest of Garner was caught on video. Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan offered no explanation and then ran for Congress. And a judge refused to release the grand jury minutes. Together they all further alienated the city's African-American community from a justice system that has been used against them.

Supporters believe a special prosecutor can better respond to such police killings than local prosecutors, who, they argue, have a built-in conflict. Yet district attorneys in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan have indicted cops who killed unarmed civilians. Think Anthony Baez and Amadou Diallo in the Bronx, Sean Bell in Queens, Akai Gurley in Brooklyn and Michael Stewart in Manhattan, to name a few.

That none of the cops was convicted in state courts is another matter. Judges acquitted the cops in Bell's and Baez's deaths (although in Baez's case, a federal jury convicted the cop, who served 7 years in prison). A Manhattan jury acquitted six cops in Stewart's death. An appellate panel removed the Diallo case from the Bronx to Albany, where a jury acquitted them. We'll have to see what occurs with Gurley.

Moreover, the appointment of a special prosecutor has political dangers, as Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, the state's first black DA, can attest. Because Johnson opposed the death penalty, then-Gov. George Pataki removed the case of the slaying of Officer Kevin Gillespie in 1996 and appointed a special prosecutor. Pataki's decision became moot when the alleged killer hanged himself in prison while awaiting trial.

Johnson opposed Schneiderman's appointment, but has praised his integrity. Still, Schneiderman is a politician, and he'll probably seek higher office at some point -- maybe governor. Acting as an aggressive special prosecutor in a police-related death involving an unarmed civilian could be a winning ticket.

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