On Monday, November 24th, 2014 a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri declined to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed an unarmed teenager, Mike Brown, this past summer. The decision to drop the case against Wilson has sparked thousands of protests across the nation.
This case is notable for more than its highly publicized nature: it’s also incredibly unusual for a grand jury to decline to return an indictment. In 2010, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases, and only dropped 11 (16%) of them. According to University of Illinois law professor, Andrew D. Leipold, “if the prosecutor wants an indictment and doesn’t get one, something has gone horribly wrong… It just doesn’t happen.” As former New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously stated, a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” There is one notable exception to this rule–when the accused is a police officer.
The alarming trend of grand juries dropping cases against police officers is not unique to Ferguson, but a nationwide issue stemming from a systematic lack of officer accountability. According to Michael Bell, retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and the father of a 21-year-old Wisconsin man who was handcuffed and then shot in the head at point blank range by a police officer, “if police on duty believe they can get away with almost anything, they will act accordingly.” Thanks largely to the Bell family, Wisconsin became the first (and currently the only) state which requires outside review of all officer-involved fatalities.
Even if positive social or political change comes out of Mike Brown’s death it won’t happen quick enough to change this week’s decision, and questions surrounding the case still remain. Jurors didn’t need to believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Wilson had committed a crime. All they needed for an indictment was to feel that there was probable cause. There were multiple eye-witnesses who claimed Brown raised his hands in the air, and irrefutable evidence that Wilson fired at the unarmed teen ten times, so why was the case against Wilson dropped?