The failure to indict

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.

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11 Responses to The failure to indict

  1. Elizabeth Stockton says:

    Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Laurie says:

    Thank you for such a calm and thoughtful assessment. It makes me all the more furious, sad, frustrated. I wanted to believe that I was missing something.

  3. Great, thoughtful piece — and so welcome in this time of turbulence and fury! I really didn’t know
    that about the grand jury situation — particularly that exculpatory evidence isn’t brought in unless the prosecutor so chooses — and that is very enlightening. And damning.

  4. William says:

    That was very insightful. Thank you for helping me see how this outcome came to be in a new and different light. I think your observations about the process are probably exactly on point.

  5. dana centrella says:

    I don’t like to see our great country cheat anyone of any color out of justice, but one thing I do know, I would never attack or punch a police officer or say anything that might cause him or her to shoot me, unless I wanted to die. I respect police officers period (or any other person) and in return they will respect me. I also would not sexually assault women for years and expect to get away with it. We are stewards of our own lives and when we assault others, we should and will pay. There is justice. And when justice is served, I will accept it and will not go down town to loot, steal and destroy….less some one will think I’m a scumbag. Ignorance is gross, stupid is worse. Gang behavior is both. A jury of 12 heard all the facts and we should accept the verdict, either way.

  6. Kevin Fitzpatrick says:

    I recall hearing gunshot all night long during the North Jersey riots following the MLK murder in the 68. I was 12. Stores burned a mile away. A police officer was killed. The National Guard were soon on every street corner.
    It was not so much about what happened to Dr. King as it was about another credible narrative: more than one hundred years of lynching, violence and injustice. Dr. King’s murder was just the tipping point.
    In Ferguson, the violence is not so much about Michael Brown as it is about another century old credible narrative: quick triggered police violence against people of color. Michael Brown’s death and the badly bungled grand jury no true bill announcement was just the tipping point.

  7. Thanks, Larry, for writing this post.

  8. charlie daniels says:

    Would it be fair to say the officer is a victim in this situation too?

  9. Cynthia Schoonover says:

    Sent from my iPad


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