JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Not much is normal about the Missouri grand jury responsible for deciding whether to charge a suburban St. Louis police officer for fatally shooting Michael Brown.
Not the length of deliberations, not the manner in which it has heard evidence, not the way in which its work could be made public. Then again, the case itself is unusual.
Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, shot the black unarmed 18-year-old shortly after noon on Aug. 9 in the center of a street, after some sort of scuffle occurred between them. As Brown’s body lay there for hours, an angry crowd gathered. Riots and looting occurred the next night. In the following days, police responded with tear gas and smoke canisters as some protesters threw rocks and Molotov cocktails.
The Associated Press spoke with a veteran prosecutor and criminal defense attorney in Missouri about the typical grand jury process — and the ways the Brown case is far from the norm.
At the time of Brown’s shooting, a St. Louis County grand jury already had been hearing cases and was scheduled to disband Sept. 10. In one of the first indications that Brown’s case would be different, a judge extended the jurors’ service until January, the maximum amount of time allowed.
Whereas a typical case might be presented to a grand jury in a single day, this case has stretched over three months.
NO SPECIFIC CHARGE
It’s fairly common in Missouri for a prosecutor to first file a complaint charging an individual with a crime, then go later to a grand jury asking it to indict the person for that offense. In this case, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch hasn’t publicly suggested any particular charge against Wilson.
Often, a grand jury hears testimony from just one or a few people, such as police investigators who summarize physical evidence and statements they’ve gathered from witnesses. In this case, McCulloch has said “all witnesses with any relevant evidence” were being summoned to testify.
TYPES OF WITNESSES
Typically, a prosecutor presents only witnesses who would aid his quest for an indictment. The target of the inquiry does not typically testify. But Wilson testified to the grand jury considering charges against him. Grand jurors also heard from a forensic expert hired by Brown’s family — unusual because such testimony typically comes only from government sources.
There often is no record of exactly what’s said in Missouri grand juries. That’s because only the jurors, witness and prosecutor are in the room. In this case, however, McCulloch’s office has said the proceedings are being recorded and transcribed.
SECRETS MADE PUBLIC
What’s said in a grand jury typically remains secret under Missouri law, though when an indictment is issued, the evidence can be aired at a trial. If Wilson is not indicted, McCulloch says he will ask a judge for permission to publicly release the grand jury evidence as soon as possible.
FOR BETTER OR WORSE
Opinion is divided about whether the unusual aspects of this grand jury will inspire trust or skepticism.
Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd, a past president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, believes the differences are beneficial.
“At the end of the day, whether Officer Wilson is indicted or not, it’s important that the public have confidence that the system worked as it should,” Zahnd said. “For that reason, the grand jury going above and beyond the norm is very, very appropriate.”
Susan McGraugh, supervisor of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the Saint Louis University School of Law, said all the exceptions to the norm appear to be heightening tensions among residents, particularly among racial minorities who believe they’re treated differently by police.
The police officer is “getting a whole special grand jury process,” McGraugh said. “I think it really adds to the consternation — you know, the frustration — that people are feeling.”