It’s practically an American tradition, a collective courtesy, not to question the decisions made by juries, to accept those decisions in good faith as part and parcel of the American justice system.
However, how is it possible not to question the juries’ decisions in the O.J. Simpson trial or the Casey “Tot Mom” Anthony trial, to name just two of the most infamous? It’s not that those jurors were not good, well-meaning people, but something seems to have gone seriously awry in those trials. Was it how the evidence was presented? A strong defense? A weak prosecution? Whatever the cause, it’s still hard to believe Simpson and Anthony were not guilty of the criminal charges against them.
That same skepticism is true of the grand-jury decision last week not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, the young black man who died on a Ferguson, Mo. street after Wilson shot him multiple times.
Unlike a trial jury, a grand jury is comprised of citizens who try to determine if there is probable cause to charge someone with criminal conduct based on evidence presented by a prosecutor and testimony from witnesses. If the grand jury agrees an indictment should be brought, the case can proceed to trial.
The grand jury in Ferguson obviously must have believed officer Wilson shot Brown in the line of duty while in fear for his own life. Brown, the jury was told, scuffled and taunted the officer and tried to grab his gun. That was the version presented by Wilson to the jury, a version contradicted by testimony from some witnesses. But it’s very possible that’s exactly how the tragedy happened.
However, what’s disturbing about this grand-jury proceeding is the prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, reportedly acted more like a defense attorney for Wilson than a prosecutor. Many a legal expert is claiming McCulloch helped Wilson filter to the jury members just what he wanted them to hear, his own side of the story, with no one seriously questioning his version of what happened. Well, at least that seems to be a widely held opinion among many who continue to comment on the case.
Also disturbing are facts we learned just recently: that after the shooting, Wilson drove from the scene, that he washed his hands, he bagged his own gun for evidence; that the gun wasn’t tested for fingerprints; and that the initial questioning of him about the incident was not recorded. Such police-policy irregularities were sure to raise questions and suspicions.
The grand jury’s decision had been awaited with agonizing suspense by Brown’s parents and loved ones, by the people of Ferguson and by people throughout the country. When the decision was announced, is it any wonder so many people expressed disappointment, anger and outrage? That disappointment and even anger is understandable; the despicable rioting, arson and mayhem is not. Fortunately, the vast majority of people protesting the jury’s decision were and are law-abiding.
Yes, it’s definitely possible the killing in Ferguson occurred just as Wilson said it did, that he was afraid for his life, that Brown attacked him. A contributing factor might even be the hostility that apparently exits between Ferguson’s police force (almost entirely white) and its residents (mostly black). Such tensions can instill fear and paranoia on both “sides,” including officers’ fears of being assaulted by residents during stops, and vice versa.
This case practically begged for a criminal trial. Only through a trial could all of these doubts, questions and suspicions have been hashed out or put to rest in the process of meticulous presentation of evidence and rigorous cross-examination. A trial might even have been the best outcome for officer Wilson, who might well have been totally exonerated in such a trial, thereby putting an end to lingering doubts. If he was truly not guilty, vindication by a trial would have cleared the air and let him get on with his life without clouds of suspicion hanging over him.
But as the case now stands, this grand-jury decision just adds yet another layer of cynicism and anger to the minds of those (mainly black Americans) who believe some law officers, in some cases, are allowed to “get away with murder.”
We can only hope this controversial incident and its outcomes will have positive effects in cities and law-enforcement departments far and wide: the review and reform of police procedures, especially in regards to profiling; a renewed effort to strengthen respectful bonds between law enforcement and residents; a law against letting police departments do their own initial investigations in cases of this sort; and a requirement for all police and deputies to wear body cameras for the sake of themselves and those they serve.
Why should we care about Ferguson? It’s because anything that causes people to lose faith in our justice system is a serious loss, and anything that helps bring more integrity and transparency to the justice system is a victory for all.