Officer Darren Wilson will not face charges for the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The news came on Monday evening, when prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that a twelve-member Grand Jury had declined to deliver an indictment.
The news brought to a close three months of deliberation, but not the controversy over what happened that day—or the national conversation over race and law enforcement that Brown's killing started.
The August 9 shooting of Brown, who was black, by Wilson, who is white, set off protests and violent confrontations with police that lasted weeks. Behind those protests were long-standing grievances against Ferguson police and its political establishment. Residents of Ferguson, roughly two-thirds of whom are black, said they were routinely mistreated by members of the police department, which is overwhelmingly white. Among the evidence they cited: Statistics showing that African-Americans constituted a disproportionate share of traffic stops (86 percent) last year.
But exactly what happened on the streets of Ferguson that August day has never been clear. Everybody agrees that Wilson stopped Brown and a friend in the middle of the street—and that some kind of altercation followed. But there are different stories about when exactly Wilson shot Brown and under what circumstances. A key question has been whether Wilson felt that Brown posed a threat, to either the officer or to others.
The Grand Jury considered five separate charges, ranging from involuntary manslaughter (which is basically killing because of recklessness, and carries a maximum sentence of seven years) all the way up to first degree murder (which is basically killing with premeditation, and carries a maximum penalty of life). McCulloch, in a prepared statement, said that the Grand Jury became convinced by reams of evidence—including physical evidence and eyewitness testimony—that Wilson had reasonable grounds for shooting.
He added that eyewitness testimony was sometimes contradictory, and that some people changed their stories once confronted with physical evidence that undermined it. McCulloch also chastised media for reporting incomplete or incorrect evidence while the Grand Jury was deliberating.
McCulloch expressed sympathy for the Brown family and recognized that some would not accept the verdict. "I join with Michael Brown's family," McCulloch said, "in urging everybody to continue the demonstrations, continue the discussions, and address the problems in constructive rather than destructive way."
By the time McCulloch made his announcement, most observers expected the Grand Jury to decide as it did. As Yishai Schwartz has explained in these pages, the law in Missouri and other states makes it difficult to convict police officers of murder, at least when the officers claim they acted in self-defense. As Gabriel Chin, a professor at the University of California-Davis, told the New Republic
The Ferguson grand jury's decision not to indict was no surprise. "A grand jury will indict a ham sandwich," the saying goes, but that never applied to police. Of course, society requires police to carry guns and orders them to use them when necessary; therefore, they get the benefit of the doubt in close cases. I can't recall an on-duty police officer being charged for homicide without clear and strong evidence of criminality; ambiguous, unclear, even suspicious circumstances are insufficient.
Frank Bowman, a professor of law at the University of Missouri and former federal prosecutor, found the evidence similarly ambiguous:
...the key question is what Mr. Brown was doing when the fatal shots were fired. Based on the summary given, there is some testimony for every taste. That is, it sounds as though there is testimony that either supports or contradicts whatever preconceptions one brings to the case. Mr. Browns supporters can continue to think he was murdered. Officer Wilson's supporters can continue to think he wasn't.
But critics have worried that McCulloch—who has close ties to the police department and whose father, a former officer, was killed by an African-American—would not pursue charges as vigorously as he could. McCulloch presented the Grand Jury with a wide array of evidence, without pushing them in one direction or the other. He also had Wilson testify in person. These choices were in some ways true to the original idea of a Grand Jury, which is supposed to be an investigative body. But prosecutors more commonly use Grand Jury proceedings to build a case for indictments—leaving ultimate decisions of guilt and innocence to a trial. According to Chin,
If the prosecutor had wanted to bring charges, he could have proceeded by filing an information charging the officer with an offense, which would have resulted in a preliminary hearing before a judge who would have determined whether probable cause existed. To proceed by grand jury rather than information and preliminary hearing meant that the prosecutor believed charges were unwarranted, but that he wanted the grand jury to at least share responsibility for the decision. Under the circumstances, there is every reason to think that the prosecutor presented all relevant facts; early on, the prosecutor said he expected the testimony and other evidence to be released; if the presentation was biased or half-hearted then there will be consequences.
The prosecutor did err in his statement when he said "The duty of the grand jury is to separate fact from fiction." The grand jury is obliged to determine whether there is probable cause, not what the actual truth is.
National polls have found a sharp racial divide on the case, with non-whites much more likely to favor indictment. It would have taken the votes of nine grand jurors to make Wilson stand trial and just three of the jurors are African-American. But it’s not clear whether voting broke down along racial lines and, at this point, nobody but the jurors know what evidence was made available—and how convincing it might have been. McCulloch has said he plans to make the evidence public, for the sake of transparency—maybe as soon as tonight.
This is not the end of the legal saga. Wilson is subject to a federal investigation, to see whether he violated Brown’s civil rights. Most experts think he’s unlikely to be charged, as that’s even harder to prove than the direct criminal charges.
But the Ferguson police department is also under investigation, from the Justice Department, and that investigation could very well end in some kind of “consent decree” under which the police changed policies under close federal supervision. It’s happened that way in other jurisdictions where police have come under attack for mistreating racial minorities—and, as Rebecca Leber has noted, many experts think such arrangements have produced better policing and improved community relations.
This item will be updated as more information becomes available.