Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, may be facing a grand jury. Jonathan Cohn explains:
Here’s how the process will work, according to criminal law experts based or practicing in Missouri. The grand jury, which consists of twelve people plucked from the local population, will sit around a table in a deliberation room somewhere in the county courthouse building. It’s the prosecutor’s show: He will present the case, starting with an overview and then bringing forward evidence. But it’s not like a trial. There will be no attorney for the other side, no judge, not even a bailiff. For most of the time, they will be alone except for the prosecutor and, on occasion, a witness who will be providing testimony.
The idea behind a grand jury is that it serves as the people’s voice—in effect, a democratic check on the enormous power of prosecutors to bring charges and force people into trials. A grand jury can be a truly deliberative body if it wants. Members can ask for witnesses to appear and testify—and ask those witnesses questions directly. Grand juries can also control their proceedings, deciding how much evidence to hear and when, finally, to vote on charges. In Missouri, it takes at least nine jurors to deliver an indictment, which is known as a “true bill.” Any less and the jury reaches a verdict of “no true bill,” which means no indictments.
Amanda Taub interviews former federal prosecutor Alex Little on what a grand jury will mean for this case:
The only question the grand jury must answer is whether there is probable cause to believe a crime has occurred. That’s a very low standard, and it’s almost always met when the District Attorney seeks charges.
“So when a District Attorney says, in effect, ‘we’ll present the evidence and let the grand jury decide,”‘that’s malarkey. If he takes that approach, then he’s already decided to abdicate his role in the process as an advocate for justice. At that point, there’s no longer a prosecutor in the room guiding the grand jurors, and — more importantly — no state official acting on behalf of the victim, Michael Brown.
“Then, when you add to the mix that minorities are notoriously underrepresented on grand juries, you have the potential for nullification — of a grand jury declining to bring charges even when there is sufficient probable cause. That’s the real danger to this approach.”
Joe Coscarelli points out that the same procedure is taking place in the case of Eric Garner’s killing:
In Staten Island, District Attorney Daniel Donovan said in a statement, “I have determined that it is appropriate to present evidence regarding the circumstances of [Eric Garner’s] death to a Richmond County Grand Jury. Yesterday, the Court granted my application for the impaneling of an additional Grand Jury and I intend to utilize that Grand Jury sometime next month to begin presenting evidence on this matter.” In what the medical examiner ruled a homicide, Garner died after being put in what appeared to be an illegal NYPD chokehold during an arrest for selling loose cigarettes.
The move to a grand jury comes after a “careful” review of the evidence, Donovan said.
Angela J.Davis argues we should look beyond just the cops in Ferguson:
Bob McCulloch is the prosecutor for St. Louis County and has held the position for 23 years. McCulloch has stated that he will present the evidence of Michael Brown’s killing to a grand jury, but members of the African-American community have expressed concern about his ability to be fair. There is always such a concern in cases involving the investigation of police officers. Police officers don’t technically work for prosecutors, but they are definitely part of the prosecution team. They investigate the cases, gather the evidence, and testify as witnesses for the state. Without police officers, prosecutors can’t bring cases or secure convictions. So prosecutors have an inherent conflict of interest when they are considering charges against police officers.
The conflict seems particularly deep-seated in this case. Bob McCulloch’s father was a police officer who was killed in the line of duty when McCulloch was a child. And McCulloch was very critical of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s decision to place the Missouri State Troopers in charge of security after complaints about the St. Louis police department’s violent attacks on peaceful protestors and journalists. McCulloch called the governor’s decision “shameful” and accused him of “denigrat[ing] the men and women of the county police department.”
Chris Geidner expects lawsuits all around:
“There will be lawsuits up the kazoo,” said Barbara Arnwine, the longtime president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in an interview Sunday evening. “I think you’re going to see ripple after ripple of legal matters here in response to this outrageous situation.”
The first matter will be the potential criminal and civil actions related to Brown’s death. But legal experts also predict possible litigation stemming from the actions taken by police in Ferguson, lawsuits brought by store owners against the police related to looting, and even the imposition of a curfew.