Staff Editorial

Grand jury decision shows bias in judicial system

Neil Cooler//Flickr: The Ferguson grand jury’s decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson has sparked protests across the country, such as this one in Washington, D.C.

Racial prejudice is alive and well in the justice system.  To say the contrary would indicate you either ignorantly believe racism is a thing of the past or you’ve been living under a rock.

Nothing amplifies racism and injustice more than what recently took place in Ferguson, Missouri, on Monday, Nov. 24. A grand jury, which had been deliberating for months, found no cause to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of unarmed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black teenager. An indictment is when a person is formally charged with a crime.

No cause.

If the grand jury could not find a single cause to charge Wilson, then the prosecution utterly failed at its job. While this is a state case, out of more than 160,000 federal cases prosecutors chose to pursue from 2009-2010, a grand jury decided not to indict only 11 times, according to a report by the Washington Post.

Emma Cook//The PHOENIX
Emma Cook//The PHOENIX

The reason the decision not to indict happens so rarely is because the prosecutor and jurors only have to find “probable cause” that the defendant committed a crime. Probable cause doesn’t prove the person is guilty of the crime. It merely determines that the person could possibly have committed the crime. In this particular case, the grand jury had to find probable cause that Wilson shot Brown without a legitimate fear for his own life.

With that in mind, County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch completely butchered the grand jury hearings, either because of personal bias or sheer ineptitude. There is some inclination to believe the first, as several of McCulloch’s close relatives worked for the St. Louis Police Department.

In fact, his own father was shot and killed in the line of duty by a black man who had stolen his gun, according to The Intercept, an online publication created by First Look Media.

But despite the clear personal ties to the case, the requests from Brown’s family attorney for a special prosecutor to take over were denied.

And so the butchery commenced.

Instead of only providing evidence that Wilson committed a crime, which is entirely within the prosecutor’s rights in a grand jury setting, McCulloch decided to dump all the evidence on the jurors at once and let them come to their own conclusion.

What’s more, the prosecution let Wilson take the stand for more than four hours with minimal cross-examination. This is particularly peculiar, as defendants don’t typically testify in grand jury proceedings. They are not allowed to have their attorney present and are therefore usually subject to harsh cross-examination from the prosecution. Instead, Wilson was free to give his version of the incident with minimal questioning from McCulloch and his two fellow prosecutors.

Benjamin Crump, one of the attorneys representing Brown’s family, said that “a first-year law student would have done a better job” cross-examining Wilson than McCulloch did.

While a first-year law student might be an exaggeration, though not an extreme one, most competent practicing attorneys could have highlighted certain evidence that would indicate there was probable cause that Wilson shot Brown without fear for his own safety.

The photos taken of Wilson’s injuries at the hospital after the incident show extremely minimal bruising. The skin appears flushed in places, but that is all. This doesn’t seem to align with Wilson’s original claim that Brown “had punched and scratched him repeatedly, leaving swelling on his face and cuts on his neck,” as reported by the New York Times. The apparent lack of even moderate injuries in contrast to what Wilson claimed to be a potentially “fatal” attack would have been enough to constitute probable cause that Wilson didn’t have reason to fear for his life.

Though there was some validity to McCulloch’s claim that some of the testimonies from various witnesses conflicted with each other and that some witnesses changed their stories once they were under oath, 16 witnesses did say that Brown surrendered, with his hands raised in some sort of fashion, according to research by PBS Newshour.

The prosecution instead decided to disregard much of the testimonies of these witnesses and highlighted the story of  Witness No. 10 –– one of only two people who explicitly denied Brown’s hands were raised –– who agreed with Wilson that Brown was running full charge at him when he was firing his weapon.

This is the prosecuting attorney. Not the defense attorney. Yet McCulloch seemed to be indicting his own client, Brown.

If he were interested in indicting Wilson, McCulloch could have focused the grand jury only on the testimony of Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown through the entire incident. Johnson was adamant that it was Wilson who instigated the confrontation and grabbed Brown from inside the vehicle, according to the evidence released to the public. His version of the events tells the story of a police officer using intimidation tactics that needlessly escalated a situation, not of a police officer fighting for survival. Johnson’s testimony would have been enough to constitute probable cause that Wilson didn’t have reason to fear for his life.

But the prosecution wasn’t interested in Johnson’s testimony.

The prosecution wasn’t interested in the fact that, despite Wilson’s claim that he “felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” the two men were actually somewhat similar in size (Brown was 6’4”, 292 pounds; Wilson is 6’4”, 210 pounds).

It wasn’t interested in the fact that Wilson was more than 140 feet away from Brown when he struck the 18-year-old with the first volley of bullets, according to the evidence released. This was contrary to the distance of 35 feet the Ferguson Police Department initially claimed.

It wasn’t interested in these facts that would constitute probable cause that Wilson didn’t have reason to fear for his life.

McCulloch and his fellow attorneys weren’t interested in these facts because they weren’t interested in indicting Wilson.

The prosecution was way more keen on portraying Brown as a young black thug fresh off robbing a convenience store while high than as the unarmed victim of a police shooting. The prosecution was, in fact, trying to prove the guilt of the person it was supposed to be protecting.

While stealing cigarillos and pushing the store owner were far from exemplary conduct, Brown’s actions on that August day were by no means punishable by death.  Yet the prosecution’s unfathomable mishandling of the grand jury proceedings didn’t even allow an indictment of  Wilson, making it impossible for an actual trial to take place, let alone justice for Brown’s needless and avoidable death.

The Phoenix Editorial Board believes that all this is the result of McCulloch’s unwavering support of the local police, which is a microcosm of the favorable view of policing by the justice system across the nation, despite its alarming violence.

In direct contrast to the idea that indictments are normally a trivial matter that was mentioned above, police are rarely charged in shooting incidents. In Dallas, there were 81 cases involving police shootings from 2008-2012. Only one officer was indicted, according to Ben Casselman of FiveThirtyEight, a statistical analytics site.

That officers are not even being indicted, let alone convicted, when there were an outrageous 1,217 deaths by police shooting from 2010-2012 according to a report by ProPublica, raises an eyebrow.

That officers are not being indicted when 32 out of every one million black men are killed in police shootings in the U.S. while just one out of one million white men is killed in the same scenario, according to the same study, is indicative of the downright racial prejudice present in this nation’s justice system.

Unfortunately, Michael Brown won’t be even close to the last case where black people’s rights are deemed lesser than whites’. Until racial prejudice no longer runs rampant in America’s courtrooms, the justice system in this country will remain broken.

Justice was not achieved in the case of Michael Brown, and The Phoenix Editorial Board stands with the peaceful protestors in Ferguson and across the nation.

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