ECLETIC RANT: Thoughts on the Ferguson Matter

Ralph E. Stone
Sunday November 30, 2014 - 09:20:00 PM

Everyone now knows that on August 9 Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an African-American teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. On November 24, a St. Louis grand jury announced that it was not indicting Mr. Wilson. 

The grand jury is made up of twelve jurors. It takes nine to issue an indictment. This grand jury was made up of 6 white men, 3 white women, 2 African-American women and 1 African-American man. The ethnic makeup of the grand jury is similar to the racial breakdown of St. Louis County, which is about 24 percent African-American and 68 percent white. 

It would be interesting to know how each of the jurors voted, especially the African-American jurors. However, the names of the jurors are secret, as is how they voted. Jurors are prohibited from commenting on a grand jury proceeding. 

There is a saying that if a prosecutor wants it, the grand jury would indict a ham sandwich. However, in cases involving police shootings, grand juries tend not to indict. 

Usually the prosecutor has latitude to choose what evidence will be presented to the grand jury. But in this case, the grand jury was given more latitude in calling witnesses and issuing subpoenas. In most grand jury cases, the prosecutor provides a charge or list of charges for the grand jury to consider. In this case, the prosecutor did not recommend a charge or charges. The person who may be charged usually does not testify, but in this case, Officer Wilson testified for four hours, but without any cross-examination. 

Under Missouri law, grand jury proceedings are secret although evidence from it can be released at a later date. In this case, all evidence and testimony were released after the grand jury decided not to indict. I expect the Justice Department will review the evidence and testimony to see if it will file federal civil rights charges against Mr. Wilson. I also expect the pundits, legal and otherwise, will comb the evidence and testimony and much “expert” commentary will result. For example, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi issued a statement critical of the grand jury’s decision. 

After hearing the grand jury’s decision not to indict, Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, said, “We respectfully ask that you please keep your protests peaceful. Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction.” 

Alas, a peaceful, non-violent reaction was not to be. Rioting and looting in Ferguson and elsewhere, including the City of Oakland, causing hundreds of thousands dollars of damage and some minor injuries, are not the answer. Ironically, the majority of businesses damaged or destroyed are minority owned.