Ferguson questions swirl: If it’s about finding facts, why no trial?
The St. Louis Prosecutor Robert McCulloch made a series of highly unusual decisions on Monday. He was reportedly seeking to defuse the highly charged situation in the wake of a white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer killing an unarmed black teenager.
He did not succeed.
Protests ignited in Ferguson, fanning flames, literal and figurative, throughout the night. Demonstrations spread from New York City to Oakland, California. Even as President Barack Obama spoke to the nation, cable news channels showed him on a split screen with the violent protests. He did not even get three-quarters of the shot.
Jelani Cobb astutely analyzes this in The New Yorker’s Daily Comment on Tuesday:
From the outset, the great difficulty has been discerning whether the authorities are driven by malevolence or incompetence. The Ferguson police let Brown’s body lie in the street for four and a half hours, an act that either reflected callous disregard for him as a human being or an inability to manage the situation. The release of Darren Wilson’s name was paired with the release of a video purportedly showing Brown stealing a box of cigarillos from a convenience store, although Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson later admitted that Wilson was unaware of the incident when he confronted the young man. (McCullough contradicted this in his statement on the non-indictment.) … Despite the sizable police presence, few officers were positioned on the stretch of West Florissant Avenue where Brown was killed. The result was that damage to the area around the police station was sporadic and short-lived, but Brown’s neighborhood burned. This was either bad strategy or further confirmation of the unimportance of that community in the eyes of Ferguson’s authorities.
McCulloch fits right into this pattern. First, it was around midday when the grand jury decided not to indict. McCullough, however, waited until 8:00 p.m. Actually, 8:15, since he was late for this most important news conference. In any case CNN tweeted at 7:45 p.m. that the panel had decided it did not have enough evidence to indict.
The prosecutor then launched into a convoluted 20-minute address, opening with an attack on social media’s inflammatory role. He attempted to explain why this decision was reached, and took questions about the grand jury process. He also authorized the document dump of all grand jury testimony — particularly unsettling because it repeated the way McCulloch overloaded the grand jury with extraordinary amounts of conflicting information.
(Here’s a link to Wilson’s testimony Here’s Ezra Klein’s smart piece about why the story Wilson tells in his testimony is so bizarre that it is unbelievable. Law professor David Troutt raised similar points about the unbelievability of the confrontation soon after it happened.)
McCulloch’s address only served to convince many commentators that a trial was necessary. Noam Scheiber said as much in The New Republic:
The problem with this is that we already have a forum for establishing the underlying facts of a case—and, no less important, for convincing the public that justice is being served in a particular case. It’s called a trial. It, rather than the post-grand jury press conference, is where lawyers typically introduce mounds of evidence to the public, litigate arguments extensively, and generally establish whether or not someone is guilty of a crime.
Though many Americans viewed the decision not to indict as a sucker punch — it was actually not unexpected. The unexpected decision would have been to indict Wilson.
Ben Casselman at FiveThirtyEight explained why. First he laid out “It’s Incredibly Rare for a Grand Jury to Do What Ferguson’s Just Did.” He presents jaw-dropping statistics. Out of 162,000 federal cases in 2010, for example, grand juries declined to indict in only 11.
The big exception, though, is when a police officer is involved. Casselman listed three key reasons. One is often cited: The public almost reflexively supports police.
But Casselman emphasized the point that prosecutors depend heavily on the police, both for testimony and for information. So they may present — even unconsciously — a less compelling argument.
Talking Points Memo highlights a shocking stat that the police, not drug dealers or domestic violence, have been responsible for the most shooting deaths in Utah over the last first years. Though Utah certainly isn’t Missouri.
It is also worth reading a remarkable interview that ran in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog. Mark Peffley and Jon Hurwitz, who wrote Justice in America: The Separate Realities of Blacks and Whites, have the stats to show why “White people believe the justice system is color blind. Black people really don’t.”
The gender gap is nothing compared to this chasm. When asked, for example, if police “care more about crimes against whites than minorities,” the authors found 70 percent of blacks agree, versus only 17 percent of whites. This is stunningly relevant, though it ran in August 2013. The case in question at that time? The shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
The Justice Department is still conducting its own investigation, according to the Los Angeles Times, and various civil rights groups could file civil suits against both Wilson and the Ferguson Police Department.
So, more to come. Maybe.
PHOTO (Top): A demonstrator sits in front of a street fire during a demonstration following the grand jury decision in the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of Michael Brown, in Oakland, California Nov. 25, 2014. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
PHOTO (INSET 1): A protester stands in the street after being treated for tear gas exposure after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, November 24, 2014. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
PHOTO (INSET 2): A man enters a burning Walgreens drug store after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, November 24, 2014. REUTERS/Adrees Latif