WHAT FERGUSON DOESN’T MEAN
Let’s be very clear about something regarding the tragedy that was Ferguson. And clarity is something desperately needed. It’s critical to note what the case does not mean.
The grand jury’s refusal or reluctance or inability to indict Officer Darren Wilson, i.e. by returning a “no true bill” on a host of charges from murder to involuntary manslaughter, doesn’t mean that another grand jury cannot be reassembled to indict because double jeopardy does not apply. (Double jeopardy attaches when a petit jury is sworn.)
It doesn’t mean that Officer Wilson wasn’t a bad cop or negligent or racist or incompetent. It doesn’t mean that Ferguson is not a hotbed of intolerance. It merely means that a grand jury did not find probable cause (PC) to indict. And as burdens of proof go, PC is notoriously simple to overcome. I contend a more contemporary definition of PC is “He probably did it.” And, yes, it’s significant to note that not a single charge was found to satisfy PC. Nothing. Especially in view of the esteemed New York jurist Sol Wachtler’s now famous quip that a good prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich.
It doesn’t mean that Bob McCulloch was an inept prosecutor or held back evidence or that the evidence was in and of itself insufficient. It doesn’t mean that Wilson will not be found civilly liable in a host of potential lawsuits and it doesn’t mean that the failure to find criminal liability in any way precludes civil liability exposure. It doesn’t mean that witnesses were necessarily lying or perjurious. They can and often change their minds, forget and experience different perceptions of the same events.
It doesn’t mean that McCulloch should have necessarily appointed or requested a special prosecutor, though in retrospect it might have been wise. It doesn’t mean that his familial relationships with police somehow disqualify him as a prosecutor. Try finding one who doesn’t have strong ties to cops. It doesn’t mean that Michael Brown asked to be killed or is a thug or a criminal. No, the lack of criminal charges, the deliver of no true bill doesn’t mean anything other than no criminal liability was found. A radiologist who scans an X-ray and announces no evidence of bone fracture doesn’t mean that a patient isn’t hurt or in pain or limping. A negative pregnancy test doesn’t mean that no one had sex or that a rape didn’t occur.
Many civilian observers have quickly realized that criminal law and real life prosecutions aren’t Law & Order. And I daresay they’re shocked. Shocked at what many of us who’ve served in the M*A*S*H units of the DA’s office and trial warrior trenches have known for years: the system exhibits many iterations from surgically precise to reckless and inept. The grand jury was theoretically designed to act as a buffer, a detached and separate tribunal to protect us from a marauding crown. And it’s fraught with problems.
Historically the grand jury is the prosecutor’s tool. And interestingly enough, now making the rounds is SCOTUS Justice Antonin Scalia’s 1992 opinion in Williams. It’s been quoted (interestingly enough) by the same folks who until recently most probably reviled him. He noted that historically “neither in this country nor in England has the suspect under investigation by the grand jury ever been thought to have a right to testify or to have exculpatory evidence presented.” Touché, Nino. The Williams court refused to dismiss an indictment where exculpatory evidence was not introduced. Here, in a most novel approach, it seems the juridical vigilantes want an indictment delivered because too much exculpatory evidence was presented. Go figure.
The grand jury’s decision anent the tragedy that is the death of Michael Brown doesn’t mean anything other than PC as to criminal liability was not found, seen, presented or allowed to be established. That’s it in a nutshell. It’s time to take a breath and continue to demand accountability from all police departments everywhere and always. And if you’re up to the challenge, Google “Kelly Thomas,” the case of a schizophrenic homeless man who was beaten to death by two Fullerton, California, cops who were ultimately acquitted. There were no riots in protest.
Now imagine the reaction to an acquittal in Wilson’s trial had it been permitted to go forward.