More Views On The Injustice In Ferguson

Two recent posts (here and here) deal with how a different system of “justice” was applied in Ferguson in order to protect a police officer from facing trial in a situation where anyone else would be tried. This has also been a trend in other parts of the country, with it being very rare for police officers to face criminal charges in shootings. The posts were also cross posted at The Moderate Voice and the first post has quite a lengthy discussion of this issue. (The second post was cross posted there at approximately the same time as this is being posted so I do not know yet whether the discussion will be extended there.)

As information has come out about the proceedings at Ferguson, many others have also expressed similar concerns that the system was abused to protect Darren Wilson from facing a trial in the shooting of Michael Brown despite their being sufficient evidence to establish probable cause. This includes libertarian as well as liberal sites. At Hit and Run, Jacob Sullum wrote that Darren Wilson Got a Private Trial Run by Friendly Prosecutors:

As I noted yesterday, the likelihood that Darren Wilson would have been acquitted if he had faced a homicide charge in connection with the death of Michael Brown does not mean he should not have been indicted. As you go through the evidence that was presented to the grand jury, two things are clear: There is plenty of room for reasonable doubt as to whether Wilson broke the law when he shot and killed Brown, and there is considerable evidence that he did—surely enough to supply probable cause, the standard for charging someone with a crime. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch managed to obscure the latter point by staging what amounted to a trial behind closed doors—a trial without a judge or an adversarial process. Assuming the jurors were acting in good faith (and there is no reason to think they weren’t), the only explanation for their decision is that they lost sight of the task at hand and considered the evidence as if they were being asked to convict Wilson rather than approve charges that would have led to a real trial.

It is not hard to see how the grand jurors could have made that mistake. McCulloch said he would present all of the evidence collected so far—everything a trial jury would see and hear. The jurors convened on 23 days, hearing testimony that takes up nearly 5,000 pages of transcript, not including the various recorded interviews played for them. Instead of making the case for an indictment, as they ordinarily would do, the prosecutors running the show often seemed to be reinforcing Wilson’s defense, as when they suggested that marijuana-induced psychosis might account for the ferocious attack that Wilson says he suffered at Brown’s hands and for the heedless charge that Wilson says forced him to shoot Brown over and over again.

McCulloch clearly thought an elaborate grand jury process, coupled with public release of all the evidence presented to the jurors, would help keep the peace and mollify critics who feared that Wilson would get away with murder. But a real trial, even one ending in acquittal, would have been much more effective at achieving those goals. A public airing of the evidence, with ample opportunity for advocates on both sides to present and probe it, is what Brown’s family has been demanding all along. McCulloch took extraordinary steps to deny them that trial, thereby reinforcing the impression that the legal system is rigged against young black men and in favor of the white cops who shoot them.

Clive Cook wrote:

A jury may well have found Wilson innocent. Much of the evidence, so far as one can tell, leans in his favor. But there should unquestionably have been a trial. If you ask me, probable cause to indict him for unlawful killing resided in the single word “unarmed” — and that’s to say nothing of the conflicting testimony about whether an already wounded Michael Brown was about to attack Wilson when the fatal shots were fired.

The larger issue — and in this system I see no way to address it — is that in cases such as these, the law-enforcement complex is judging its own conduct. Police and prosecutors seem to get bigger guns and more powers every time policymakers turn their attention to the subject; the trend never seems to go the other way. With this growing and potentially tyrannical power goes the vital necessity of ensuring that officers of the law are held properly to account. And they aren’t. It’s as simple as that.

Jeffrey Toobin discussed how grand juries are used:

In Missouri, as elsewhere, grand juries are known as tools of prosecutors. In the famous words of Sol Wachtler, the former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich” if he wanted to. This is certainly true, but it is true, too, that grand juries retain at least a nominal independence. They usually do what prosecutors want, but they are not legally required to.

In sending Wilson’s case to the grand jury, McCulloch technically turned over to them the decision about whether to prosecute. By submitting all the evidence to the grand jury, he added to the perception that this process represented an independent evaluation of the evidence. But there is little doubt that he remained largely in control of the process; aggressive advocacy by prosecutors could have persuaded the grand jurors to vote for some kind of indictment. The standard for such charges—probable cause, or more probable than not—is generally a very easy hurdle. If McCulloch’s lawyers had simply pared down the evidence to that which incriminated Wilson, they would have easily obtained an indictment.

The grand jury chose not to indict Wilson for any crimes in connection with Brown’s death. In a news conference following the decision, McCulloch laid out the evidence that he believed supported the grand jury’s finding. In making the case for Wilson’s innocence, McCulloch cherry-picked the most exculpatory information from what was assembled before the grand jury. The conclusion may even have been correct; based on a preliminary review of the evidence before the grand jury, it’s not clear to me that a trial jury would have found Wilson guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

But the goal of criminal law is to be fair—to treat similarly situated people similarly—as well as to reach just results. McCulloch gave Wilson’s case special treatment. He turned it over to the grand jury, a rarity itself, and then used the investigation as a document dump, an approach that is virtually without precedent in the law of Missouri or anywhere else. Buried underneath every scrap of evidence McCulloch could find, the grand jury threw up its hands and said that a crime could not be proved. This is the opposite of the customary ham-sandwich approach, in which the jurors are explicitly steered to the prosecutor’s preferred conclusion. Some might suggest that all cases should be treated the way McCulloch handled Wilson before the grand jury, with a full-fledged mini-trial of all the incriminating and exculpatory evidence presented at this preliminary stage. Of course, the cost of such an approach, in both time and money, would be prohibitive, and there is no guarantee that the ultimate resolutions of most cases would be any more just. In any event, reserving this kind of special treatment for white police officers charged with killing black suspects cannot be an appropriate resolution.

Further coverage from The New Yorker can be found here.

Noam Scheiber also described how St. Louis Prosecutor Bob McCulloch Abused the Grand Jury Process, calling the choice of using the grand jury process to establish Wilson’s innocence” to be deeply unfair:

Why? Because grand juries simply aren’t equipped to adjudicate guilt or innocence. As The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin points out, prosecutors have enormous sway over grand juries. Typically, they cherry pick the evidence that establishes probable cause, helping them obtain indictments in almost every case. But in this case, McCulloch clearly didn’t believe an indictment was deserved. So he used his influence in the opposite directionstacking the deck in favor of a non-indictment. Specifically, he inundated the grand jury with “every scrap of evidence [he] could find,” in Toobin’s words, at which point “the grand jury threw up its hands and said that a crime could not be proved.” [UPDATE: This New York Times story goes even further, showing how McCulloch’s team essentially cherry-picked evidence establishing Wilson’s innocence. It describes how they accepted Wilson’s account at face value, even leading him toward exculpatory statements through their questioning, while going out of their way to point out flaws and contradictions in alternative accounts from other witnesses.]

In effect, McCulloch staged a pre-trial trial in order to vindicate his personal view of Wilson’s innocence. But grand juries simply aren’t the proper forum for holding a trial. The most obvious reason is that they’re not adversarial settings. The prosecutor gets to present his or her view, but there’s no one to present the opposing viewa rather key feature of the criminal justice system. This isn’t a problem when the prosecutor believes the defendant is guilty, since the result is an actual trial. But when the prosecutor stage-manages a grand jury into affirming his view of the defendant’s innocence, that’s it. That’s the only trial we get.

Politically, I understand the advantage of this for McCulloch. He gets to wrap his preference for not indicting Wilson in the legitimacy of a trial-like process, whereas simply declining to indict Wilson without the support of a grand jury would have left him badly exposed. It would have triggered an enormous political backlash, rather than the relatively minor uproar we witnessed Monday night. But as a basic matter of justice, it’s outrageous. As I noted yesterday, the only way to earn the legitimacy of a trial is to actually have a trial, in which both positions are given a fair hearing.

The New York Times placed this in perspective, describing what McCulloch did wrong in this case:

The St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict the white police officer who in August shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, would have generated widespread anger and disappointment in any case. But the county prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, who is widely viewed in the minority community as being in the pockets of the police, made matters infinitely worse by handling this sensitive investigation in the worst possible way.

First, he refused to step aside in favor of a special prosecutor who could have been appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri. He further undermined public confidence by taking a highly unorthodox approach to the grand jury proceeding. Instead of conducting an investigation and then presenting the case and a recommendation of charges to the grand jury, his office shifted its job to the grand jury. It made no recommendation on whether to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, but left it to the jurors to wade through masses of evidence to determine whether there was probable cause to file charges against Officer Wilson for Mr. Brown’s killing.

Under ordinary circumstances, grand jury hearings can be concluded within days. The proceeding in this case lasted an astonishing three months. And since grand jury proceedings are held in secret, the drawn-out process fanned suspicions that Mr. McCulloch was deliberately carrying on a trial out of public view, for the express purpose of exonerating Officer Wilson.

If all this weren’t bad enough, Mr. McCulloch took a reckless approach to announcing the grand jury’s finding. After delaying the announcement all day, he finally made it late in the evening, when darkness had placed law enforcement agencies at a serious disadvantage as they tried to control the angry crowds that had been drawn into the streets by news that the verdict was coming. Mr. McCulloch’s announcement sounded more like a defense of Officer Wilson than a neutral summary of the facts that had led the grand jury to its conclusion.

For the black community of Ferguson, the killing of Michael Brown was the last straw in a long train of abuses that they have suffered daily at the hands of the local police. News accounts have strongly suggested, for example, that the police in St. Louis County’s many municipalities systematically target poor and minority citizens for street and traffic stops — partly to generate fines — which has the effect of both bankrupting and criminalizing whole communities.

In this context, the police are justifiably seen as an alien, occupying force that is synonymous with state-sponsored abuse.

The case resonated across the country — in New York City, Chicago and Oakland — because the killing of young black men by police is a common feature of African-American life and a source of dread for black parents from coast to coast. This point was underscored last month in a grim report by ProPublica, showing that young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk — 21 times greater — of being shot dead by police than young white men. These statistics reflect the fact that many police officers see black men as expendable figures on the urban landscape, not quite human beings.

We get a flavor of this in Officer Wilson’s grand jury testimony, when he describes Michael Brown, as he was being shot, as a soulless behemoth who was “almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.”

Crooks and Liars described How Robert McCulloch Hoodwinked The Ferguson Grand Jury

For the entire proceeding, jurors weighed the evidence in light of a law that was deemed unconstitutional almost 30 years ago. Then they corrected the record at the very end, but by then it was too late.

To me, this invalidates the entire decision. While I believe jurors acted in good faith, the prosecutor did not, and intentionally confused jurors as to the applicable law. Correcting it at the end is not adequate or acceptable.

Unfortunately, there is no way to force Bob McCulloch to prosecute Darren Wilson. But Eric Holder has promised an aggressive investigation of Ferguson police. That’s good, but he might want to broaden that investigation to include St. Louis County prosecutors.

How can anyone believe this Grand Jury proceeding has a shred of integrity? I don’t blame the jurors; I blame the prosecutor.

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3 Comments

  1. 1
    janice Wald says:

    Hi Ron
    Its Janice
    You met me at Twitter
    I also wrote about Ferguson & agreed with you though people writing at my site disagreed with my position. Read my blog about Ferguson being one piece in a larger view of racial divide. Here’s the link. http://wp.me/p5jxvv-2y
    By the way I wrote about how nice you’ve been in my Thanksgiving blogReflections. That’s the Ferguson link
    Janice

  2. 2
    Janice Wald says:

    What No One Tells You About Blogging Here is the link for you and your followers to read how kind you’ve been with your suggestions
    Janice

  3. 3
    JimZ says:

    Good piece.  We have seen too many times that an incident that started with the smallest of infractions (jay walking; even petty theft) ending in a cop shooting and killing an unarmed black man is now almost routine in the US.  Americans have a most bizarre sense of justice.  Numerous times a white individual or mob with plenty of guns, many trained upon law officers, are treated with kid gloves, the latter quietly withdraw in order for there not to be a confrontation; while a young black man runs off at the mouth and is called a “demon.”  I would hope my hometown PD would not have provoked such a confrontation upon seeing two people walking down the middle of the street.  But in this era of militarized PD’s who knows?

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