Ferguson braces for prospect of no indictment in Michael Brown shooting case
One way to address the threat of a hostile reaction to a likely decision not to indict the white police officer that shot an unarmed black teen devolving into another round of violent protests would be to open up the process as soon as possible.
Just over three months since Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, setting off protests that gripped the nation for some two weeks, before mostly fading from the news cycle even though the protests are continuing, people on both sides of the barricades in the St. Louis suburb are preparing for the reaction to the announcement of the results of the grand jury investigation, which everyone seems to agree is going to result in no indictment at all:
At long last, virtually all Ferguson residents – black and white, young and old, rich and poor – have come to agree on something: Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown this August, will not be indicted.
That consensus – remarkable in a town that was split on whether it even had any racial tension — can be seen in preparations that seem better suited for an impending war: boarded-up stores, daily non-violent training sessions across town, law enforcement agencies stockpiling riot gear and tear gas, and a governor who has said the National Guard will be on standby.
To be sure, the St. Louis County grand jury could decide to indict Wilson. The jurors – nine white and three black – have heard testimony for three months, part of prosecuting attorney Bob McCullouch’s promise to present “absolutely everything.” As the New York Times reported, McCullouch has chosen a highly irregular process that more resembles a jury trial, perhaps in an effort to shift responsibility for the decision to the jury instead of his office.
But whatever eventually happens to Wilson, the current collective belief about his fate exposes a deeper resignation: The rift between public officials and the black community here has not healed since the protests in August, and few expect that to change.
Maybe even more than the killing of Brown, many people here say, the undiminished hostility between police and black citizens has fueled a volatile mix of emotions.
“I just get the feeling that it’s going to get worse,” said Alma Morrow, a black clerk at a boarded-up beauty supply store on West Florissant Avenue, the site of the most violent clashes between protesters and police following Brown’s death in August.
“It goes beyond Mike Brown now. People over here are really mad,” Morrow said.
The authorities are hardly the only ones girding for conflict. Near where the worst violence was this summer, many businesses began boarding up windows weeks ago.
“It’s going to be chaos,” said Mike Jacob, a clerk at Sam’s Meat Market and More on West Florissant Avenue, a major thoroughfare where protests took place nightly and several stores were looted in the weeks after Brown’s death. At Sam’s, they earned their skepticism the hard way: The store was ransacked twice during riots in August.
Six local school district superintendents are so concerned about potential violence that they sent a letter to McCulloch asking him to announce the grand jury decision after 5 p.m. or on a weekend, preferably a Sunday when schools typically don’t host events or activities. Fear has also driven up business at gun stores across the area.
“Sales are off the charts,” said Steven King, a white owner of Metro Shooting Supplies in Bridgeton, a mostly white suburb about 10 miles from Ferguson. He held up a stack of about 100 new applications for the federal background check needed to buy a weapon. “People are in fear of their lives. They’re just scared to death. The rumors are that every single area is a threat.”
St. Louis routinely has one of the nation’s highest violent crime rates, but Brown’s death was the only homicide in Ferguson this year.
At least a few locals worry that all of these very public preparations for violent protests could be a self-fulling prophecy. “I don’t think the reaction would have been as violent as what everyone is thinking,” said Hubert H. Hoosman Jr., who is black and owns a real estate consulting firm a few blocks from Ferguson’s police station. “But I do worry what it says that everyone keeps talking about it as if it’s a given.”
The anticipation that the grand jury process is likely to end with no indictment is not something that just seems to be based in the fears of those who quite simply don’t trust the criminal justice system in these types of situation, although that is certainly a part of what has driven both the public reaction to the shooting and the anticipation of what is likely to happen in the days ahead. As I’ve noted in previous posts, leaks from inside the investigation have suggested that the evidence that has been presented to the grand jury, including eyewitness testimony, tends to support Officer Wilson’s version of what happened that Saturday afternoon in August. Additionally, comments to the press by unnamed officials involved in the federal government’s own investigation of the matter have suggested that civil rights charges in the case are unlikely no matter what happens in the state criminal investigation. While that last part is not necessarily relevant in predicting what the grand jury may do in this case, of course, the reasoning behind the conclusions that Justice Department seems to suggest that there was very little evidence to support a criminal charge against Officer Wilson, least of all one based on the allegation that he acted with the intention of depriving Brown of his civil rights or because of Brown’s race. Additionally, as I’ve noted before, Missouri law on the subject of the proper use of police force, which the grand jury will no doubt be instructed in as part of their process of deliberation, is broader than it is in other states:
Chapter 563 of the Missouri Revised Statutes, will no doubt come into play in this new case in which a cop shot an unarmed man.
Under this law, a cop is justified in using deadly force “in effecting an arrest or in preventing an escape from custody” if “he reasonably believes” it is necessary in order to “to effect the arrest and also reasonably believes that the person to be arrested has committed or attempted to commit a felony ... or may otherwise endanger life or inflict serious physical injury unless arrested without delay.”
Given this statute, and the facts that we are aware of, the probability that there will be a decision not to indict Wilson at all, or to indict him on some very lesser charge, seems quite high. Taking into account both the distrust that the protests in the wake of Brown shooting clearly revealed, and the fact that these proceedings have been conducted in secret, as required by law, the prospect of protests that get out of control, either due to police overreaction, opportunistic looting by outsiders who don’t really care about the issues involved in this case, or both seems to be quite high. In part, it strikes me that one way to address the threat of the reaction devolving into another round of violent protests would be to open up the process as soon as possible. The easiest way to do this, of course, would be for the district attorney and whatever other authorities need to be involved in the decision agreeing to release the transcripts of the grand jury proceedings, and the evidence that was presented to the grand jury, to the public at virtually the same time that the decision is made public. If this is done, it would give the public the opportunity to at least see what the grand jury saw and heard that led them to make the decision they did. For obvious reasons, this would only really be an option if the result of the investigation is no indictment, but that seems fine, because that would be the situation where there would be the most danger of protests that could get out of control. If Wilson is indicted, on the other hand, at least on a lesser charge, the evidence would eventually be tested at trial, and perhaps also in a pre-trial probable cause hearing in which the defense asks a judge to determine if there is indeed sufficient evidence to support the indictment to permit the case to go forward.
In any case, as I warned in the weeks after the Brown shooting when the protests were still very much in the news, the probability of an indictment, much less a conviction if charges are brought, is far from a slam dunk. Now that the day when we’ll learn whether there will even be charges against Officer Wilson seems to be very close, how the authorities handle any such announcement, and how the public reacts to that announcement, will be very interesting to watch unfold.
Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.