What About the Grand Jury in Ferguson, MO. Part I

grand jury in ferguson, MOWhat really happened with the Grand Jury in Ferguson, MO?  Unless you’ve missed all news in the past few days, you probably know that several months ago, a white cop,Officer Darren Wilson, shot and killed an unarmed black man named Michael Brown.  After riots, sit-ins, violence, and hours of media time, a Grand Jury was called to review the case.

I’ve worked as a prosecutor in the past. Unless you’ve been one, it’s hard to know what’s really happened.  Let’s look at several things from “behind the scenes:”

1.  What was the purpose of the Grand Jury In Ferguson, MO?  The listened to evidence and made a decision if a criminal homicide had been committed.  If they had decided one had been committed, they would’ve “issued an indictment,” which would’ve charged Officer Wilson with a crime.

2.  How do Grand Juries start?  Within the county where an alleged crime occurred, the court can order the creation of a Grand Jury  These are people picked from pools of eligible citizens just like a regular jury.  If any of you have ever received a notice for jury duty, it could also be for a grand jury.  Although a regular jury is composed of 12 people, a Grand Jury doesn’t have to be limited to 12 people.  Almost always, it’s the local prosecutor who starts the process by asking the court to call for a Grand Jury.

3.  Where do they meet?  Usually, in the local courthouse or in the prosecutor’s office.  In my county, the prosecutor has a large room lined with chairs and has a big open space in the middle for witnesses.  They meet in secret.  The only people present are the jurors, a court reporter, the prosecutor, and any witnesses the prosecutor calls.  This is not like a trial on TV.  The suspect may be called as a witness or not.  It sounds like Officer Darren Wilson was called.  He is not entitled to a defense lawyer and must appear on his own to be questioned by the prosecutor.

4.  Why is it held in secret?  It’s an attempt to avoid any outside influences.  For instance, in many states the media is allowed to be in the courtrooms during regular jury trials.  Does that influence the outcome?  Who know, but in the case involving a Grand Jury, an attempt is made to avoid any influence by outside forces.  Also, if the Grand Jury decides not to indict, the reputation and details of the accused person’s life remain secret.

5. What happens during the process?  The prosecutor picks the witnesses and the evidence the Grand Jury will hear.  This could also include autopsy results, forensic evidence, expert testimony, etc.  The jurors cannot call any witnesses but (unlike a jury trial) they can ask the witnesses questions.  After all the evidence has been heard, they vote whether or not to issue an indictment.  In Ferguson, MO, they listened to about 60 witnesses and still came back with no charges.

Next post, I’ll go further into the secret details of what goes on “behind closed door” and what alternatives are left for the citizens of Ferguson, MO.

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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