What About the Grand Jury in Ferguson, MO? Part II

Last post, I reviewed what goes on “behind the scenes” in a Grand Jury.  You’re probably aware of the tragic killing of an unarmed black man, grand jury in ferguson, MOnamed Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo. by police officer Darren Wilson.  The Grand Jury there did not issue an indictment charging Officer Wilson with any crime from the shooting.

What happened?  What does the Grand Jury really do?  Let’s continue with some interesting points:

1.  What did the Grand Jury consider in Ferguson, MO?  They heard over 60 witnesses.  The prosecutor called all these people.  It sounded like he tried to cover every detail.  He would also instruct the Grand Jury about what the legal definition of various, possible homicide crimes could be, such as manslaughter or murder in the first degree.  The jurors had to apply the evidence to the legal definitions.  After days of deliberating, they decided the evidence did not fit any of the legal definitions for a crime to have been committed.  No indictment of Officer Darren Wilson.

2.  When we look at the news, it appears that Office Wilson was armed and Michael Brown was not—how could the Grand Jury come back with the decision they did? Because under most state laws, the prosecutor must present evidence that the officer acted with “malice and without a good-faith belief that the shooting was justified.”  It’s a tough burden to overcome and obviously, the Grand Jury felt the evidence didn’t overcome the burden.  They didn’t issue an indictment.

3.  If the Grand Jury in Ferguson, MO had issued an indictment, is that the same as a finding of guilty for Officer Darren Wilson?  No.  if the Grand Jury had indicted Office Wilson of manslaughter, for instance, he would be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a regular trial before twelve new jurors.  He would have the right to not testify and would have a defense lawyer—things he didn’t have before the Grand Jury.

4.  Do the citizens of Ferguson, MO have any alternatives now?  They could go to the federal prosecutor and try to get a civil rights criminal charge filed against Officer Darren Wilson.  It’s an accusation that he deprived Michael Brown of his civil rights—to life.  However, the burden on the prosecutor here is even more difficult—it essentially requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Darren Wilson intended to deprive Michael Brown of his civil rights.  A tough hurdle to get over.

5.  Is the Grand Jury a fair process?  This is really the question the angry people in the streets are asking.  People who worry about uncontrolled police violence, don’t think so, of course.  I don’t know the answer to this question but consider this: the prosecutor chooses what evidence to present, which witnesses to call—or not call.  He also instructs the jurors on what the law calls for and is alone with them in secret.  There aren’t any defense defense lawyers to challenge or correct the prosecutor.  Is there be a possibility the prosecutor could sway the Grand Jury one way or the other?

What do you think?

About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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