Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Night of Reckoning




For the better part of three months a St. Louis County Grand Jury poured over evidence, statements, the rambling testimony of Darren Wilson, and determined that there was no probable cause to indict the Ferguson police officer for the shooting of Michael Brown.  This was a formal charge, mind you, not whether or not Wilson was guilty of involuntary manslaughter, the least of the possible charges the jury could have rendered.

All a bereaved mother could do was break down in tears and be carried away upon hearing of the decision in front of a large gathering in the streets of Ferguson.  Soon after, the town erupted in flames with St. Louis County mobilizing large forces to break up the crowd.

There hadn't been anything quite like this since the Rodney King verdict in 1992.  However, in that case the four police officers, who brutally apprehended King after a high speed chase, were at least charged for using excessive force, albeit acquitted.

In Ferguson, it only took four jurors to cast doubt on this indictment.  I don't imagine we will get an accounting of how the jury voted.  However, the grand jury has decided to release Wilson's testimony and other key documents following their decision, which apparently it wasn't required to do.  The chief prosecutor claimed there were conflicting eye-witness accounts, some of which were "making it up."  Wilson's own testimony raises at least one red flag, claiming he called the dispatcher and learned that Brown was identified as a shoplifter in a cigar shop just minutes before.  Wilson has been known to fudge accounts before.

Those reports about Wilson having suffered serious injuries also proved false.  He suffered little more than a slight bruise to his cheek and back of neck, but apparently there was "reasonable belief" that Brown could do more serious damage to him, which impelled him to pull out his gun and shoot him.

Eric Holder is not satisfied with the decision.  He has said he will continue to pursue the case independently, but the burden of proof is much more rigorous at the federal level.  In the meantime, Darren Wilson can be reinstated in the notorious Ferguson police force, which is facing separate discrimination charges.  The Brown family can also file a wrongful death suit against Wilson.

However, this offers little solace for a community that has faced pervasive police discrimination for decades, Surprisingly, Ferguson police are not required to have body or car cameras, pointing to a larger issue with St. Louis County in patrolling its cities' streets.  After all, Michael Brown's only "crime" when Darren Wilson chose to drive up beside him and a friend was jaywalking, as the two teens were walking in the street.

More troublesome is the way this case has broken down along racial lines, much like the Rodney King incident.  Whites overwhelmingly support Wilson, whereas Blacks solidly support Michael Brown.  The grand jury had 9 Whites and 3 Blacks for a case that took place in a predominantly Black community.

The media has similarly taken sides in this case, with conservative outlets overwhelmingly presenting news stories in Wilson's defense, and liberal media similarly favoring Michael Brown.  News channels like CNN try to straddle the fence, only to get rocks thrown at its reporters.

Prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch blamed the media for making it difficult to present the case unbiasedly, but Kevin Curran, president of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, questioned the way McCulloch presented the case -- burdening the jury with a huge volume of evidence, much of it confusing, that very easily led them to question the findings.

One can only hope that the federal investigation will be more thorough, and address what appear to be gaps in Darren Wilson's testimony.

18 comments:

  1. What makes this case a lot more difficult is the inconclusiveness of the evidence. In the Rodney King case, we had a graphic video showing the incontrovertible viciousness of the LA police assault on King by no less than four or five LAPD officers.

    In this case, it was one lone police officer with a plausible case for self-defense against a possibly belligerent suspect who posed an immediate threat. We have no video and the witness testimony is all over the place.

    It's a terrible tragedy nonetheless.

    Craig

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  2. We do have a partial video, which at the very least casts in doubt Wilson's testimony. And, his bruises don't strike me as anything more than you would get in a minor scuffle, assuming it even took place, just as that very convenient story that the dispatcher informed him of the robbery. The burden of proof should be on Wilson in this case, as he is the one who admittedly shot Brown.

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  3. All the same, the grand jury chose not to indict. It was dumped in their lap because the DA decided not file charges and passed the buck, very likely because of the local uproar and ensuing national controversy. Grand juries often get stuck with cases that a DA for political reasons, doesn’t want to touch with a ten foot pole.

    Craig

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  4. The case was not dumped in the grand jury's lap. District attorneys must get a True Bill of indictment from the grand jury before proceeding. That is as fundamental as it gets in this country. If the grand jury doesn't find probable cause that a crime has been committed, the state can't prosecute.

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  5. District Attorneys don’t need grand jury authorization to prosecute. Grand juries were once ubiquitous in the U.S. but are becoming a thing of the past. Half the states don’t even have them anymore.

    Craig

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    1. Missouri, like about half of the states in this country, allows a trial court judge to bind a case over for trial after a preliminary hearing; alternatively, the case goes before a grand jury. All states have provisions in their constitutions for using grand juries.

      The grand jury system is not perfect, but nor are trial court judges.

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  6. If you read the articles linked from Vox, you will see the opinion expressed by other prosecutors that McCollough seemed to go out of his way to create confusion rather than win an indictment. There have been other articles I've read which note McCollough's ties to the police and his interest in protecting Wilson. This was a St. Louis County Grand Jury, the same county that sanctions the Ferguson police force. All it took was four jurors to say no to the indictment. Like everything else surrounding this incident, it was very poorly handled.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Having served on a grand jury, I can tell you that prosecutors typically present only those cases that they believe will result in indictments, and their presentation of those cases is obviously geared toward accomplishing that. As for what McCollough did or didn't do in this case, if you heard (as I have heard) eye witness statements of what supposedly happened during the commission of a crime, you would realize that district attorneys don't have to go out of their way to create confusion. Eye witnesses think they have seen all kinds of things. In fact, as the Innocence Project has shown time and again, when people are convicted of crimes they did not commit, it is almost always because of unreliable eye witness testimony. There were eye witnesses who claimed Brown had his hands raised over his head when he was shot; other eye witnesses (and I'm not talking about the police officer) claimed otherwise. That's the problem: either some were lying or some were mistaken. Got a coin? In this case the ballistics evidence sounds like it is probably the best evidence of what happened.

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    3. Except this was about whether there was probable cause for trial, and that seemed to be pretty much the case. The odd thing is that the county prosecutor didn't cross-examine Wilson, despite some rather gaping holes in his testimony, but did c-x witnesses, often to their own detriment. It seemed that McColllough was serving more in Wilson's defense.

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    4. Probable cause that a crime has been committed is not a real high bar. But this grand jury, based on what sounds like extensive testimony and evidence, was not convinced that the state had carried its burden. As for witness testimony, we could certainly streamline the process and accept everyone's statements at face value, but I'm not sure that would result in more justice, especially since people who claimed to have witnessed this confrontation told conflicting accounts of what happened.

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  7. The problem was that the state prosecutor appears to have purposely obfuscated the case, which in itself is criminal. This is St. Louis county we are talking about here. The same county that has allowed Ferguson police to get away with pervasive discrimination for years.

    PS - you are always going to have conflicting accounts of a crime or situation. The question was whether there was a probable cause for a formal charge, not his guilt.

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  8. You are using the words "seemed" and "appears to" to suggest that something is true. I saw a lot of that at Vox. In fact, words like that are frequently used in the media to "stir the pot." As for "conflicting accounts," is it better to indict despite conflicting accounts? That's a good way to ruin people who just might not be guilty of anything.

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    1. I didn't use "seemed" or "appears to" once in the post itself, only in the previous two comments because I was offering an opinion, not statement of fact. Getting a little nit picky, aren't we?

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    2. I was referring to your replies. Happy holidays.

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  9. BTW, Craig, I'm glad that you joined the discussion. Hope you will join others.

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  10. once again police attack civilians and then try to suppress the evidence:


    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GncaM_lt3-E


    Isn't strange how the right wingers who defended the Tea Baggers and their open display of high powered weapons in Nevada in Cliven Bundy's standoff or during their TP rallies have yet to call for the use of weapons to stop government repression in situations like this.

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