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Answers to Questions About the Ferguson Grand Jury

Posted by on Nov. 24, 2014 at 4:56 PM
  • 2 Replies

Answers to Questions About the Ferguson Grand Jury


A Missouri grand jury heard evidence for months as it weighed whether to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, which was followed by sometimes violent protests. Some answers to common questions about the grand jury:


Q: What was the grand jury deciding?

A: The grand jury considered whether there is enough evidence to charge Wilson with a crime and, if so, what that charge should be.


Q: How was the grand jury different from other juries?

A: The grand jury can determine only whether probable cause exists to indict Wilson, not whether he is guilty. If the jury indicts him, a separate trial jury will be seated to decide whether to convict or acquit him.


Q: How many people were on the grand jury and how were they selected?

A: The grand jury was composed of 12 people "selected at random from a fair cross-section of the citizens," according to Missouri law. The jury was 75 percent white: six white men, three white women, two black women and one black man. St. Louis County overall is 70 percent white, but about two-thirds of Ferguson's residents are black. Brown was black. The officer is white.


Q: Was the grand jury appointed for this specific case?

A: No. It was appointed for a four-month term. The grand jury had been hearing routine cases around the time Brown was killed and then turned its attention to the shooting.

The jury's term was due to expire Sept. 10. That same day, county Judge Carolyn Whittington extended the term to Jan. 7 ? the longest extension allowable by state law. The investigation was always expected to go longer than the typical grand jury term.


Q: How often did the grand jurors meet?

A: Their normal schedule was to meet once a week.


Q: Who was inside the grand jury room?

A: The jury, a prosecutor and a witness. Grand jury proceedings are closed to the public.


Q: What happened when the grand jury convened?

A: Prosecutors presented evidence and summoned witnesses to testify. A grand jury is a powerful tool for investigating crimes because witnesses must testify unless they invoke the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects against self-incrimination.

Typically, grand jurors hear a condensed version of the evidence that might be presented at a trial. In the Ferguson case, grand jurors are receiving more extensive evidence and testimony.


Q: Who testified to the grand jury?

A: The only witnesses known for certain to have testified were Wilson and Dr. Michael Baden, who performed a private autopsy on Brown on behalf of his family. But other witnesses and experts may also have appeared.


Q: What charges could be filed?

A: At the lower end is second-degree involuntary manslaughter, which is defined as acting with criminal negligence to cause a death. It is punishable by up to four years in prison.

Answers to Questions About the Ferguson Grand Jury

First-degree involuntary manslaughter, defined as recklessly causing a death, is punishable by up to seven years in prison. Voluntary manslaughter, defined as causing a death "under the influence of sudden passion arising from adequate cause," is punishable by five to 15 years in prison. Second-degree murder is defined as knowingly causing a death, or acting with the purpose of causing serious physical injury that ends up resulting in death. It is punishable by life in prison or a range of 10 to 30 years.

The most serious charge, first-degree murder, can be used only when someone knowingly causes a death after deliberation and is punishable by either life in prison or lethal injection.


Q: Do charges require a unanimous vote?

A: No. Consent from nine jurors is enough to file a charge in Missouri. The jury could also choose not to file any charges.


Q: What will be publicly disclosed when grand jurors reach a decision?

A: If Wilson is charged, the indictment will be made public, but the evidence will be kept secret for use at a trial. If Wilson is not indicted, McCulloch has said he will take the unusual step of releasing transcripts and audio recordings of the grand jury investigation.


Q: What preparations have been made?

A: Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard to help state and local police in case of civil unrest. At least one school district called off classes for Monday and Tuesday. Police have undergone training pertaining to protesters' constitutional rights and have purchased more equipment, such as shields, helmets, smoke canisters and rubber bullets.

by on Nov. 24, 2014 at 4:56 PM
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by Silver Member on Nov. 24, 2014 at 5:10 PM
2 moms liked this

I thought most people knew this but apparently I was wrong. I'm surprised at the number of really smart people I talk to who know nothing about how our systems work. Perhaps if more "common people" knew how our justice system and government works there wouldn't be such a feeling of mistrust.

by Silver Member on Nov. 24, 2014 at 5:15 PM

A worker in Ferguson, Mo., boarding up a business on Thursday in preparation for possible unrest after a grand jury decision. CreditJim Young/Reuters
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After hearing testimony for nearly three months in the death of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old unarmed African-American who was shot by Officer Darren Wilson on a Ferguson, Mo., street on Aug. 9, a St. Louis County grand jury is nearing a decision on whether to bring criminal charges.

Routinely, grand juries are virtual rubber stamps for prosecutors, approving the proposed indictments after hearing from a few witnesses and getting the bare outlines of the incriminating evidence.

But the Ferguson case, laden with incendiary emotions, is anything but routine, and the grand jury proceeding has been highly unusual.

The St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, Robert P. McCulloch, said from the outset that his office would be “presenting absolutely everything” to the grand jury, including eyewitness accounts of the fatal altercation and forensic conclusions that might be diametrically opposed. The proceedings have been prolonged and exhaustive, in some ways more resembling a criminal trial than a normal grand jury hearing and shifting heavy responsibility onto the 12 jurors, nine white and three black, on the panel.

Robert P. McCullochCreditTom Gannam/Associated Press

“The grand jury is probably going to hear more about this case than any other grand jury has heard about any other case in living memory,” said Peter A. Joy, a professor at the Washington University Law School in St. Louis, of the extended and varied testimony.

After instruction in the range of possible criminal charges, from intentional murder to criminally negligent manslaughter, and after hearing the legal grounds for an officer’s use of deadly force, the grand jury will have to make some crucial judgments.

For example, did the officer “reasonably believe” that he or others were in serious jeopardy? Will at least nine of the 12 jurors agree that there is “probable cause” to bring a criminal charge?

“The prosecutors appear to be giving the grand jury the ability to decide for themselves,” said Ric Simmons, a former prosecutor and professor of criminal law at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. They may hope that the decision will have more credibility with an already inflamed public because, he said, “it will be based on the community’s voice, not the prosecutor’s decision.”

“I think it’s a good thing,” Mr. Simmons added. “It’s the original reason why we want to have grand juries.”

But Mr. Brown’s family and their supporters have expressed deep suspicion about the drawn-out proceedings, arguing that Officer Wilson should have been indicted months ago.

Continue reading the main story


What Happened in Ferguson?

Why did the police shoot an unarmed black teenager in a St. Louis suburb, and what has unfolded since then? Here’s what you need to know about the situation in Missouri.


“It seems to me that there is a secret trial that’s taking place,” Anthony D. Gray, a lawyer for the Brown family, said in an interview. “This notion that all of the evidence needs to be presented in order to determine probable cause is faulty, in my opinion.”

In another highly unusual step, Officer Wilson himself testified before the grand jury in September, for four hours and, per court rules, without a defense lawyer present.

“Most defense lawyers would not let their client go anywhere near the grand jury,” said Katherine Goldwasser, a former federal prosecutor and a law professor at Washington University. But in this case, she surmised, Officer Wilson may have wanted to tell the jurors directly why he had felt justified in repeatedly shooting Mr. Brown, and why he believes he acted within the guidelines for deadly force.

Instead of recommending a charge, as they usually do, the prosecutors in this case are providing jurors with definitions of possible crimes so they can decide what charges, if any, are warranted.

“The grand jury will be given a range of potential charges, from murder first to involuntary manslaughter, just as they would in a jury trial,” said Edward Magee, the prosecutor’s spokesman. The panel will also be instructed in the statutes governing self-defense and the use of deadly force by law enforcement agents.

The most likely crimes to receive consideration, legal experts said, were:

Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager who was shot and killed by a white police officer. CreditFabrice Coffrini/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

■ Second-degree murder, defined as “knowingly causing the death of another person” and punishable by a prison term of 10 to 30 years;

■ Voluntary manslaughter, which is causing a death “under the influence of sudden passion arising from adequate cause,” with a penalty of five to 15 years;

■ Involuntary manslaughter in the first degree, which can mean “recklessly” causing a death, with a penalty not to exceed seven years;

■ Involuntary manslaughter in the second degree, which is acting “with criminal negligence” to cause a death, with a penalty not to exceed four years.

The grand jurors will also have to consider the grounds for official use of deadly force, which is legal when an officer “reasonably believes” that a person “may otherwise endanger life or inflict serious physical injury unless arrested without delay,” as well as a broader self-defense clause, which allows anyone to use deadly force when he or she “reasonably believes” it is necessary to prevent death or serious injury.

Jurors will have to assess the varied eyewitness accounts, the forensic evidence and the law and make a decision.

Continue reading the main story


Tracking the Events in the Wake of Michael Brown’s Shooting

Updates on the events in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed teenager, by a police officer on Aug. 9.


“At bottom would be their view of the reasonableness of a belief that his own or someone else’s life was in jeopardy,” Ms. Goldwasser said. “If you think that it was reasonable, then you don’t charge him. If you think it was unreasonable, you charge.”

The grand jury had already been meeting weekly since May, voting on indictments in more routine cases that prosecutors wanted to bring, when jurors were assigned to the Wilson case in August and their terms were extended.

What message might have been sent, Ms. Goldwasser wondered, when prosecutors shifted tactics so radically, offering evidence from all sides in a case?

Another factor with unknown consequences: The jurors have not been sequestered, making it virtually certain that they would have heard a great deal about the case even if they tried to avoid it.

This is not usually a major concern at the grand jury stage, which determines only whether there is probable cause to indict a person before a full-fledged criminal trial with more limits on permissible testimony.

On Thursday, Mr. Gray, the Brown family lawyer, reiterated his concern about the grand jury proceedings, saying he worried about possible bias in the way information was presented. “What emphasis was placed on what piece of evidence?” he asked.

The prosecutor, seeking to allay such fears, has arranged for the proceedings to be recorded, “just to be open,” said Mr. Magee, the spokesman. If the grand jury does not vote for an indictment, the prosecutor will ask the court to authorize the public release of transcripts and recordings, without witness names, Mr. Magee said.

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