Darren Wilson will face no charges in Michael Brown shooting

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NO INDICTMENT was today’s decision of the Ferguson grand jury deciding whether or not to criminally charge Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. To the disappointment of some but to the shock of few, officer Darren Wilson will not be formally charged in Michael Brown’s death.

The Ferguson-area community was preparing for this decision weeks in advance to brace for an aftermath of protests by those calling for Wilson’s indictment. According to reports, police departments in the St. Louis area have spent over $300,000 stockpiling plastic handcuffs, tear gas, smoke grenades and pepper balls to prepare for a strong law enforcement response in the wake of today’s decision. The purchasing of such riot-themed gear was to the dismay of many believing that the heavily militarized response of the police in the wake of the shooting of the unarmed teen was uncalled-for.

Many demanding an indictment of Wilson felt the decision to present the controversial shooting case to the grand jury in St Louis County, Missouri by veteran prosecutor Robert McCulloch was an assured way for the indictment to not be returned. McCulloch had two options for the case to be brought to court in reference to the charges: McCulloch could’ve presented the case to the grand jury, just as he did, or he could’ve charged Wilson by information.

By presenting the case to the grand jury, the prosecutor controls the entire process. The prosecutor leads the grand jury and decides which evidence to present, which witnesses to call, how members of the grand jury will be instructed to deliberate about evidence and how the questions are to be asked.

The grand jury that heard Darren Wilson’s case consisted of 12 people and only 9 votes were needed to indict Wilson. To determine if an indictment will be returned, the required level of proof is probable cause, which means they must determine if a crime may have happened. On the other hand, in a criminal jury trial the burden of proof required is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime happened, which is a much higher level of proof and evidence. In order to secure a guilty verdict in a criminal trial, all votes of the entire jury must be unanimous, meaning they all agree with the same verdict which is vastly different from the 9 votes required to return an indictment.

If Wilson was charged by information by prosecutor Robert McCulloch, the case would’ve been in an open court and forum for all to see. Much different from the grand jury process, if Wilson was charged by information, a judge would make the determination of probable cause after listening to evidence presented by the prosecution in a courtroom. McCulloch chose the grand jury route, which is not public. Further, if an officer states that he felt his life was threatened at any point during an altercation, it’s almost unheard-of for an officer to be indicted by a grand jury.

In this case, McCulloch, a prosecutor with a history of knowing and working with Darren Wilson in prosecuting criminal cases together, chose to not recuse himself, which would’ve made way for a special prosecutor to be named to investigate the case. A special prosecutor would’ve had no ties to the community, Officer Wilson or the police department and provided a potentially totally unbiased view of the case. The appearance of impropriety by McCulloch has caused many in citizens and activists to not trust the investigatory process. Many in the community wanted Wilson to be charged by information so the process would be a public one. However, with today’s decision, Wilson will likely never have to answer to the criminal charges publicly.

Over the last several weeks protest groups have banded together in pre-emptive preparations against violent police responses to protests. One such group, The Don’t Shoot Coalition, which is an organization compiled of over 50 organizations formed after the controversial shooting of Michael Brown, initiated talks with police weeks ago in an effort to curtail any violent clashes between protestors and police in St Louis County. The Don’t Shoot Coalition worked to negotiate rules of engagement including asking law enforcement agencies to value the safety of those protesting and not utilize the militarized response including armored vehicles, rubber bullets and tear gas. Don’t Shoot co-chair Michael T. McPhearson stated “If Officer Wilson is not indicted, we will do our part to try to de-escalate violence without de-escalating action”

Eric Guster is a civil rights and criminal defense trial lawyer. He appears regularly on HLN, MSNBC, FOX and CNN as a legal analyst and commentator. He can be followed on twitter @EricGuster & FB.com/EricGuster

UPDATE:

FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — A grand jury has decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed, black 18-year-old whose fatal shooting sparked weeks of sometimes-violent protests.

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch announced the decision Monday evening. A grand jury of nine whites and three blacks had been meeting weekly since Aug. 20 to consider evidence.

At least nine votes would have been required to indict Wilson. The panel met in secret, a standard practice for such proceedings.

The Justice Department is conducting a separate investigation into possible civil rights violations that could result in federal charges. The department also has launched a broad probe into the Ferguson Police Department, looking for patterns of discrimination.

The Aug. 9 shooting inflamed tensions in the predominantly black St. Louis suburb that is patrolled by an overwhelmingly white police force. As Brown’s body lay for hours in the center of a residential street, an angry crowd of onlookers gathered. Rioting and looting occurred the following night, and police responded with armored vehicles and tear gas.

Protests continued for weeks — often peacefully, but sometimes turning violent, with demonstrators throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails and police firing smoke canisters, tear gas and rubber bullets. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon briefly summoned the National Guard.

Hours before the announcement, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon urged people to remain peaceful as he appeared at a news conference with the state’s public safety director and the leaders of St. Louis city and county.

“Our shared hope and expectation is that regardless of the decision, people on all sides show tolerance, mutual respect and restraint,” Nixon said.

Some black leaders and Brown’s parents questioned McCulloch’s ability to be impartial. The prosecutor’s father, mother, brother, uncle and cousin all worked for the St. Louis Police Department, and his father was killed while responding to a call involving a black suspect in 1964. McCulloch was 12 at the time, and the killing became a hallmark of his initial campaign for elected prosecutor.

Nixon declined to seek the removal of McCulloch in the Brown case, but he also called for McCulloch to vigorously prosecute Wilson, who had been on the Ferguson force for less than three years. Prior to that job, Wilson was an officer for nearly two years in Jennings, another St. Louis suburb.

McCulloch, a Democrat, has been in office since 1991 and was re-elected to another term earlier this month.

Among the cases that McCulloch’s opponents cited as examples of pro-police bias was the 2000 shooting death of two men in a fast-food parking lot by two undercover drug officers in the town of Berkeley, which like Ferguson is a predominantly black suburb in what locals call North County.

A federal investigation determined that Earl Murray and Ronald Beasley were unarmed and that their car had not moved forward when the officers fired 21 shots. But that inquiry also determined that the shootings were justified since the officers feared for their lives.

McCulloch opted to not prosecute the two officers and characterized the victims as “bums” who “spread destruction in the community” by selling drugs.

 

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