Along with many Americans, I was glued to my television set last night awaiting the decision of the grand jury in the killing of Michael Brown. When the announcement was made earlier in the day that the decision would be released hours later rather than immediately, I suspected the result would be no indictment. When the state’s attorney took the podium well after eight p.m. and launched into a prolonged speech, I was certain this was where we were headed.
I’ve been a conscientious consumer of the news around this killing for months now and that’s continued into this morning. One of the claims we make at colleges like Oglethorpe University where I serve as President and Swarthmore College, my alma mater, is that we educate students to sift through all the noise around events like these and make independent, informed judgements about the truth. It turns out that’s awful hard to do, I think, especially in cases as inflamed as this one and with consequences so monumental as they are here.
This morning, here’s the best I can do with my own informed and independent judgement. The decision to seek a grand jury indictment in this case, a decision which was a choice of the prosecutor, played a large role in the outcome. More than that, though, the decision about how the case was presented to the grand jury was largely determinative of the result. In my experience, in most cases that are brought before a grand jury, the prosecutor comes in with a plan and an outcome she desires. That’s the nature of the grand jury system. Exculpatory witnesses are rarely presented. It’s at the trial itself where the jurors hear all sides of the case, not in the grand jury room. The room belongs to the prosecutor and the prosecutor alone. It appears that this was not the case with this grand jury — the prosecutor painted himself almost as a neutral bystander in the process.
When the prosecutor concluded his speech last night, I was left with this impression. After a review of all the evidence in the case, he didn’t believe an indictment was appropriate and he used the grand jury process as a cover for that decision. Now, not being privy to all the evidence, I can’t say for certain whether I think his conclusion was legally incorrect. It’s possible the evidence supported this conclusion. I do believe, however, that our justice system in America is biased against citizens of color from start to finish. There’s lots of history and evidence to support that conclusion. The history of incarceration in America is one place to start that examination, but I’ll leave that broader subject for another day. What I will say today is that I found last night’s defense of the verdict to be suspect and that troubles me greatly. The verdict is consistent with the narrative that justice is still really hard to come by in this country for black Americans, even in 2014, and that ought to be of great concern to all Americans.