Yesterday, a Grand Jury delivered an indictment. But, you say, the news says they decided not to indict. That may be the case regarding the officer, but that decision itself was an indictment of our legal system, and highlighted both its strengths and its failures. The reaction to it was a statement as well — a statement that many people don’t understand the legal system, and that many people do not understand the ways to bring about change.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: I was going to title this post “Guilty, Guilty, Guilty” (in deference to an old Doonesbury comic). It is clear the officer, Darren Wilson, shot Michael Brown. There is no disputing that fact.
However, the law does not view all shootings as equal. This goes back to biblical days — the commandments do not say “Do not kill”, but “Do not murder”, making that fine distinction between killing and murder. We kill every day in war, but do not prosecute the soldiers. We watch TV shows where cops kill clearly bad guys, and that is justified with no penalties. So “guilt”, at least for the killing, is only the first step.
The next step is determining which of the many crimes for which Wilson could be charged would have sufficient evidence to convince a jury to render a unanimous decision that he is guilty. First degree murder is out: you clearly couldn’t show premeditated intent. As this article noted, second-degree murder charges were theoretically possible, but this choice was unlikely if jurors decided that Wilson feared for his life when he killed Brown. If jurors concluded that Wilson was negligent when he shot Brown, they could have gone with a charge of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.
Let’s look at that “feared for his life”, and add in the complicating factor. We’re dealing with a police officer here, not a normal civilian. Police officers, by definition of their role, are expected to carry guns and occasionally use deadly force, with justification, as part of their job. As a result, there are strict definitions of the conditions when such force is justified; if those conditions are met, murder charges cannot be substantiated. In this case, it isn’t “white privilege”, but “police officer privilege”. One of those conditions is “fear for your life” (and that is an internal judgement call, something slippery to disprove). The other is to prevent a known felon from escaping.
Now, add to this that a Grand Jury’s function is not to judge guilt, but to decide if there appears to be sufficient evidence to convince a jury to render a guilty verdict (which must be unanimous). In other words, the Grand Jury needed to review all of the evidence provided, and make a determination that it convincingly and unambiguously demonstrated that the officer had no reason to fear for his life, no reason to believe that Brown was a likely felon, and no reason to believe he was trying to escape. From what I’ve read, the evidence wasn’t quite that clear.
This left the Grand Jury with a difficult meta-decision: Do they indict on weak evidence, and risk a Not Guilty version at the trial, or do they not send the case to trial unless it is clear that Guilty would be returned. If you think the reaction to non-indictment was bad, just imagine the reaction to a Not Guilty verdict.
Next, let’s explore the question of whether white privilege was involved. I believe that it was, but its involvement was subtle. A long history of such privilege probably led to a different quality in the evidence based on who gave the evidence (I wanted to say “race”, but that’s incorrect). There was also the impact of the skin color of the people who collected the evidence, and a judgement by the Grand Jury of how the skin color of the eventual jurors might judge the evidence. It was also present in the decision of whether the officer feared for his life — that fear was also the product of prejudice and privilege. This is all subtle, but present.
In the end, an indictment was delivered: an indictment of our criminal justice system. It is a system that ultimately does not judge guilt or innocence, but whether specific crimes can be proven. The standard of proving those crimes is harder if they were committed by a law officer in the performance of their job. It is complicated by the fact that, in the general sense, the legal system works very hard to keep the innocent out of jail, making standards of proof difficult. And yes, it is an indictment of the inherent privilege effects in that system, for subjective belief is involved, and the jurors eventually judge the evidence through the lenses of their biases. This isn’t CSI with purely factual evidence and a purely factual decision.
You’re probably asking, if you’re read this far, if I agree with the decision. That’s hard to answer. Do I feel the shooting was justified? Based on what I heard, no. Do I believe the Grand Jury decision was correct? Having not read all the evidence, I can’t answer whether it would be sufficient to convince a jury unanimously that the shooting was justified, because all jurors do not think as I do. I can believe that the Grand Jury might think the evidence was insufficient. That is the fault of the prosecutor, who had the responsibility to build a convincing case. This prosecutor did no such thing — he dumped the mounds of evidence on the Grand Jury and left it to them to build the case, connect the dots, and decide the charges. That poor performance probably led directly to the Grand Jury decision, which may have been what the prosecutor wanted. Do I believe the system is biased towards the police? Yes, and we’re not helping by giving them former military equipment and creating the mindset of “them against the enemy”, as opposed to protecting the population. There are deep mindsets to change here.
In the beginning of this post, I talked about how to bring about change. I’ll note that looting is never the way to bring about change. Protesting can be, but not violent protests that result in creating biases against the protesters. King and Gandhi had it right — non-violent protest is the way to go, if one must protest. The best way to bring about change is from within, but it is often too slow for many people’s taste. Voting is important, but even more important is doing — getting people educated about the inherent biases and problems in the system, and then getting them to run for office to change the laws and the system to reduce or mitigate that bias.
Here’s the TL;DR summary: The system is broken. Most people don’t understand the system. The system worked, but didn’t give the answer the unwashed masses thought it should deliver. To fix the problem, violence is not the answer — get educated about the problems and work to fix the system from within.