PROVIDENCE — A grand jury declined to indict correctional officers, including the driver of the truck that drove into protesters, for the actions they took at the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I., on Aug. 14, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha announced Wednesday.
Neronha said the 23-member grand jury needed at least 12 votes to support criminal charges being filed, but it declined to indict anyone following an “extremely thorough” investigation that included law enforcement interviewing more than 70 witnesses in the case.
“The criminal justice system is not a perfect instrument,” Neronha said at a news conference. “Sometimes it is a blunt instrument, and it is not a scalpel. There can be conduct which objectively is wrong yet doesn’t rise to the level of criminal misconduct.”
Neronha confirmed that he met with protesters Wednesday morning to inform them that no charges would be filed — a decision that was sharply criticized by the Jewish activist group Never Again Action. He declined to offer an opinion on the grand jury’s decision, but he said law enforcement needs to do a better job when it comes to protecting people during peaceful protests.
“I recognize there is disappointment here, I understand how they feel, and it is not lost on me the pain that they’re in,” Neronha said.
On Aug. 14, protesters gathered to object to the detention of immigrants held by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Wyatt, a nonprofit prison run by a quasipublic corporation. Video shows a black pickup swerving toward protesters blocking Wyatt’s employee parking lot. Protesters scream, the truck stops, and then it moves forward. Organizers have said five protesters were injured.
Neronha said investigators focused both what happened with the pickup truck and on correctional officers who emerged from Wyatt and used pepper spray on protesters near the truck. The pickup driver, Wyatt Captain Thomas Woodworth, has resigned. He has not been charged.
Ellen Bar-Zemer, a 73-year-old Providence resident who was pepper-sprayed in the face, said Neronha told the protesters on Wednesday that, in essence, “he really feels our pain and is sorry we are so upset.”
“If I wanted a therapy session, I would have gone to a therapist,” she said. “I wanted justice. I did not get it.”
Bar-Zemer said Neronha also told demonstrators they did nothing wrong. “But if no one did anything wrong, why was there violence?” she asked.
Never Again Action, which has organized rallies at Wyatt for several months, issued a statement, saying it was “greatly disappointed” that Woodworth would not face charges.
“Yet, we are not surprised,” the group said. “Witnesses who testified before the grand jury, including those who were hit by the truck, reported that prosecutors focused only on the supposed ‘danger’ of unarmed protesters in an effort to justify Woodworth’s and his colleagues’ self-evidently indefensible actions.”
Neronha said he assigned his best prosecutors to the case and the grand jury was never considering any charges against protesters. “You ask tough questions in grand juries,” he said. “It’s understandable that there are instances when witnesses may read into the questions things that may not be there.”
But Jared A. Goldstein, a Providence resident who was a protester in the August rally, said he and others who appeared before the grand jury thought prosecutors “came in with an agenda to show this use of violence was somehow justified.”
Goldstein, associate dean for academic affairs at the Roger Williams University School of Law, called the grand jury decision “outrageous.”
“It sets a horrible precedent for what should happen to correctional officers when they abuse their powers,” he said. “Any future violence against people at Wyatt or any future protesters is blood on their hands.”
Protester Jessica Rosner, of Cranston, said that after Neronha told a group of protesters that there would be no charges, one woman broke down in tears and others left angry.
“It’s sad,” Rosner said. “You are above the law in this state if you are in law enforcement. I can’t imagine if the situation were reversed. If I drove my car into anybody for any purpose planning to hurt them, I would have been arrested on the spot. If I were a person of color, I would have been shot.”
Woodworth’s attorney, Gary G. Pelletier, said Woodworth is “very happy and relieved” by the grand jury’s decision. “I believe the decision is the legally correct decision based on the facts and circumstances,” he said.
Pelletier said Woodworth was given the choice of resigning from Wyatt or being terminated,. Based on his advice, Woodworth chose not to testify before the grand jury, he said.
Pelletier said Woodworth was trying to come to work on the night of Aug. 14 and had no intention of hurting anyone. “People were pounding on his truck, it was a chaotic situation,” he said. “He believes the protesters are starting to move to get out of his way, and he goes forward, but there was never intent to hurt anyone.”
Neronha emphasized that the Aug. 14 incident was avoidable.
“A peaceful protest -- a right enshrined in our Constitution -- devolved into an extremely unfortunate incident because of several unfortunate decisions,” he said. “I want to be clear: None of those unfortunate decisions were made by protesters. Had the decision been made differently, I believe this matter would have been avoided.”
Neronha said it’s critical to learn from the incident.
“The lesson, for me, is that we need to have a sufficient law enforcement presence, when there is a protest, to protect public safety,” he said.