National Beat Reporter
Following months of jury deliberations in the case of the Aug. 9 killing of 18-year-old black youth Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, a grand jury decided on Nov. 24 to not indict Officer Wilson of any crimes. The implications of this decision are such that Wilson will not be prosecuted for Brown’s death.
After listening to over 70 hours of testimony and reading through thousands of pages of evidence, the grand jury concluded that there was not enough probable cause to indict Wilson. The decision has sparked protests throughout Ferguson and the rest of the country, with some turning violent.
In the wake of the grand jury’s decision, Ferguson took a violent turn the night of Nov. 24. Several businesses were looted and torched, a multitude of gunshots were fired, and over 80 people were arrested. Other protests, peaceful or otherwise, arose in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision in major cities including St. Louis, Los Angeles, New York City, and even in Santa Barbara and on the UCSB campus.
President Obama issued a public address following the grand jury’s announcement in which he urged for peace and calm. Stressing that there is “no excuse for violence,” the President reminded protesters that fixing the divide and distrust between communities of color and law enforcement “won’t be done by smashing car windows, it won’t be done by using this as an excuse to vandalize property, and it certainly won’t be done by hurting anybody.” Obama reminded protestors that the decision was the grand jury’s to make and that they should respect that decision and express their disagreement in a peaceful manner.
The decision to leave the case in the hands of a grand jury was made by St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch. McCulloch has had close ties to the St. Louis Police Department throughout his career; his father was a St. Louis police officer who died in the line of duty while chasing after a black suspect. Many of his relatives, including his mother and brother, have had ties to the St. Louis Police Department.
McCulloch’s handling of the case has been criticized as unusual. McCulloch has the authority to bypass a grand jury and take the case directly to trial by requesting a preliminary hearing, where a judge would decide if a trial is warranted. Instead, McCulloch took the full investigation to a grand jury and presented them with over 5000 pages of evidence that included testimony from over 60 witnesses, which The New Yorker’s legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin has referred to as a “document dump.” McCulloch also did not ask the grand jury to endorse a specific charge, leaving the jurors entirely with the decision of which charges to bring against Wilson, if any. Usually, a prosecutor works with a grand jury to decide on criminal charges. “As a strategic move, it was smart; he got what he wanted without being seen as directly responsible for the result,” said Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., director of the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard University.
The Brown family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump, publicly criticized McCulloch and the grand jury process in a statement following the grand jury’s decision. Crump stated that “the process should be indicted,” and that “a first year law student would have [done] a better job” of questioning Darren Wilson’s testimony. In August, Crump and the Brown family asked Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to appoint a special prosecutor to the case.
Officer Darren Wilson’s testimony to the grand jury demonstrated that he was very frightened of Michael Brown, even claiming he was afraid for his life. He said Brown reached into his police vehicle and punched him repeatedly, at one point grabbing Brown’s arm. Wilson claimed that it felt “like a five-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan.” Wilson is 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs about 210 lbs, Brown was an inch taller and weighed 290 lbs.
The investigation found that Wilson fired 12 shots, six hit Brown directly and two more grazed him. Wilson said in his testimony that he didn’t realize how many times he fired his weapon, nor whether he was hitting Brown, claiming that he kept firing because Brown kept approaching him. “At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I was shooting at him,” said Wilson in his testimony.
The National Bar Association expressed its dissatisfaction with the grand jury’s decision in a statement released Nov. 25. “The National Bar Association is adamant about our desire for transformative justice. While we are disappointed with the grand jury’s ruling, we are promoting peace on every street corner around the world,” said Pamela Meanes, President of the National Bar Association. The statement went on to criticize the process through which the decision was made, including the prosecutor’s handling of the case. “We will not rest until Michael Brown and his family has justice,” said Meanes.
The Department of Justice has yet to conclude an independent investigation to see whether Wilson committed any federal civil rights violations. Even though Wilson was acquitted at the state level, there is still the possibility that Wilson could be charged at the federal level and receive a prison sentence.