The Ferguson Decision In Context

A community and a nation searching for accountability and for answers.

The Disturbing Facts Surrounding The Case And Where We Go From Here

By now the world knows about the grand jury decision announced last night to not indict Officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, on August 9. What you may not know, however, is the context surrounding the case: how remarkably rare it is for a grand jury not to indict, but how remarkably common it is for tragedies like this one to occur; a prosecutor asked to step down before presenting the case, and then slammed by experts afterward for how he handled it. These circumstances have amounted to a situation that has left many people, paradoxically, shocked yet unsurprised at how it unfolded, and searching for accountability and answers about how to prevent more tragedies like this in the future.

A decision by the grand jury not to indict is very rare. According to statistics from the Justice Department, grand juries declined to return and indictment in just 11 of 162,000 federal cases prosecuted by U.S. attorneys in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. While Wilson’s case was heard in state court, not federal, legal experts agree that it is extremely rare for prosecutors at any level to fail to win an indictment.

The prosecutor’s tactics made a charge much less likely. According to legal experts, county prosecutor Robert McCollough approached the case in a way that could have made an indictment less likely. He decided to let the grand jury hear “every scrap of evidence,” as he put it. Typically, prosecutors present to the grand jury only the evidence necessary to establish probable cause – a grand jury does not determine guilt or innocence but only if a reasonable jury could find the defendant guilty. Watch this video to learn more.

The prosecutor faced widespread criticism leading up to the decision, and after it. As the case began, civil rights groups called for McCollough to step down, citing his previous support for police officers in another police misconduct case, and a family history that includes many family members on the police force including his father, who was killed by a black man with a gun. After the decision last night, many decried McCoullough’s choice to make the announcement late at night, his long-winded explanation pointing fingers at the media, and his defiant tone that reinforced prior frustration with how he handled the case.

In the wake of the decision, community activists are taking the long view. ThinkProgress reporter Carimah Townes reports from Ferguson: “The death of Michael Brown was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, adding to a longer list of grievances in the community, such as income inequality and the need for a $15 minimum wage. And activist groups, professional associations, and individuals in and around the city are already looking — and planning — beyond the verdict, in the hopes of seeking justice for individuals who die at the hands of police.”

Lives cut short by police violence happen all too often. A 22-year-old carrying a sword his mother said was a toy. A 12-year-old gunned down by police while carrying a toy gun at a playground. Another 22-year-old who had just picked up a BB gun stocked on the shelf of a WalMart. A young man walking down a darkened stairwell in an apartment complex after he and his girlfriend got tired of waiting for the elevator. These are just a few of the numerous examples of lives cut short by police since Michael Brown was killed in August.

BOTTOM LINE: The context surrounding the decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown only increases the immensely troubling and tragic nature of the incident. While we respect the work and the decision of the grand jury, days like yesterday are a clear reminder about how much work we still have left to do to ensure that treatment by the criminal justice system is not determined by one’s race, and that the opportunity to prosper is not based on one’s ZIP code.

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