Whether grand jurors in Missouri did the right thing will be debated for years. Beyond debate is the wisdom of the decision to go public — instantly — with reports, photos, drawings and testimony transcripts related to the death of Michael Brown.
There was opportunistic thuggery after disclosure of the decision not to charge Darren Wilson of the Ferguson police with criminality in the killing of the 18-year-old. What better way to take a stand against injustice than by raiding the closest liquor store and stealing all the booze?
But for truth-seekers — including those affirmed by the decision as well as those enraged — there was an instant stockpile of data.
And it was an enlightening stockpile. It shed light — big time — on the difficult task citizen-jurors face every day in far less volatile but equally serious cases. Specifically, two people looking at the same event will rarely, if ever, be in accord if asked what they saw.
Similarly — and this is a generalization — most of white America cannot and will never be able to sense what it is like to be a minority, to face constant scrutiny, constant judgment and suspicion. Maybe Michael Brown did invite his own destruction, but marginalized generations can’t be faulted for suspecting otherwise. And for being tired of it. Really tired.
Mississippi and Missouri “sunshine laws” and grand jury systems are similar.
Officially, as prosecuting attorney Robert P. McCulloch said, Missouri statutes make the files of police investigations, once closed by authorities, open to the public.
Mississippi law does the same thing. But rather than have the grand jury and other files revealed in drips and drabs, the Missouri authorities took pains to make sure it was all out there on the Internet immediately.
Together, this told the whole world, “You may not agree with our conclusion, but this is the information we had to work with.”
Maybe they got it right in this particular situation, maybe they didn’t. But we get to see what they saw.
McCullough also offered a lesson on the purpose and workings of grand juries as compared to trial juries.
The practice of convening grand juries to meet privately is ancient and often misunderstood.
The purpose of secrecy is to allow jurors to ask questions “unfettered.” They raise no suspicion by asking questions because no one knows the questions are being. Secrecy keeps questions from being interpreted, in public, as accusations.
Grand juries are supposed to turn over rocks, conduct reviews and inspections. They are not bound by the rules of evidence that apply to trial jurors. Grand jurors can ask anyone anything.
Now it’s not normal for a grand jury in Mississippi or in Missouri to hear from a possible defendant. But again, they can do as they wish and the Missouri panel chose to hear from Officer Wilson.
In the end, grand juries in Mississippi are to determine whether it’s more likely than not that a crime has occurred on the facts as they have been able to distill them from the array of information provided. Missouri uses different words: probable cause.
In both states, the idea is to order that a more structured public trial if it a specific crime was committed.
It is not the role of grand juries, as some have commented, to more or less defer to a public trial to clear up inconsistencies. It is their job — and not an easy one — to determine based on physical and oral evidence whether it is likely that a crime has taken place. It’s important to avoid “show trials.”
Can a skilled prosecutor obtain an indictment of almost anyone for almost anything? Yes, and it happens a lot. Making the system work as it is supposed to work — free of external pressures and focused on the best available versions of events — isn’t a flawless process either.
But, as President Obama said, it’s what we have.
In other countries and in other cases in this country, prosecutors have not been nearly so transparent. To hold back reports, to seal files and to pretend there are clear, straightforward answers where there are not fuels angst and anger and, yes, even more violence than has been experienced in the wake of last week’s decision.
Congratulations to Missouri officials. No state, no locality, is jealous of what the people of Ferguson have gone through since midday on Aug. 9, 2014. But their decision to open the books and have everyone pore over the same information shows good faith and a belief in democracy.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist and assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Write to him at email@example.com.