The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has been in the media forefront since the tragic shooting in August 2014 but it gained new traction recently when the Ferguson Grand Jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson. Traditionally, a grand jury hearing is a one-sided presentation of the facts and evidence by the prosecutor. Not here, however: District Attorney Robert McCulloch decided to let the grand jury hear all the evidence, including a narrative statement by the target. Why? Take a moment to explore this question and read Reflecting on the Ferguson Grand Jury by Joel Cohen & Bennett L. Gershman.
The central irony in this case is that the familiar abuses in the grand jury process typically occur when prosecutors refuse to present all of the evidence and, indeed, hide evidence that might have led a grand jury to refuse to indict – to vote a “no true bill.” What is particularly odd about the Ferguson Grand Jury presentation is the complaint that by his decision to present all of the evidence, McCulloch actually dis-served the prosecution. Why did McCulloch take these steps? We do not know, and we are likely never to know.
It has been quite a summer. Having been involved in the criminal justice system for more than forty years, I feel as if there has never been a summer with so much going on – and so much attention being paid to it. Ferguson, Missouri, is the most recent and most alarming event, following so closely on the Staten Island chokehold case. These cases have focused serious attention on the police-citizen relationship that was front and center last year in the stop-and-frisk decision and the settlement of that lawsuit by the new New York City mayor.
We have been witness to the unprecedented actions of the Brooklyn, New York Conviction Integrity Unit in the District Attorney’s office, and to the dismissal of erroneous convictions in that county. These dismissals have been followed by substantial financial settlements by New York City. The New York Times ran a series of editorials urging the decriminalization of marijuana possession in some circumstances, and another editorial calling for revisions in the virtually-non-existent clemency process. Four state governors are either being tried, charged, or investigated.
Rampant prisoner abuse has been exposed just as claims made by prisoners has spiked, and there is now dialogue about the excessive use and destructive results of solitary confinement. The entire capital punishment process has come under scrutiny because the drug companies who provide the lethal drugs to accomplish our executions are no longer willing to do so. There is increasing focus on our entire system of punishment because of international attention on our disgracefully large prison population.
On an international level, we have also been witness to mass executions in Egypt and a long-awaited English investigation of the poisoning of a Russian journalist in London. Scotland abolished its long-standing and unique corroboration requirement. We were witness to an historic event: a Black, South African, and female judge presiding at the trial of a young white male, who happened to be an internationally acclaimed athlete.
Having been raised on a September to September calendar, and having continued with that conception of the “year” as a law professor, I am pausing to wonder what we will witness in the next twelve months.
For now, the staff of the PCJI are taking a two-week break. We will resume our blog after Labor Day, on September 4.