A St. Louis County grand jury chose not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of St. Louis teen Michael Brown. After nearly three months, the grand jury comprised of seven men and five women, nine white and three black heard evidence from 60 witnesses and met 25 times. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney William P. McCulloch cited inconsistent witness testimony, thereby making it difficult to present a clear picture of what occurred in the 90-second confrontation between Officer Wilson and Mr. Brown. The grand jury considered charges ranging from first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter, all before failing to find that probable cause was established to return a true bill of indictment to charge Officer Wilson.
To lead in, any loss of life is tragic. No one wins in this situation. A young man lost his life, his parents lost a son, and a police officer has possibly lost a career and will have to live with the fact that he had to use lethal force while on the job. In this case, at least from what was visible, due process was performed and the grand jury failed to return a true bill of indictment after having been presented with a considerable amount of evidence over a very long period of time. Article I, Section 16 of Missouri’s Constitution requires that 9 of 12 members on a grand jury find that there is probable cause that a crime has been committed in order to return a true bill of indictment.
Unlike a standard jury trial, a grand jury is performed without the presence of a criminal defense attorney and the proceeding is not open as a standard trial is. Using the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (“FRCP”) as a guide can better explain how a typical grand jury system works. Though there is no enumerated quorum for a grand jury to convene, FRCP 6(a)(1) requires between 16 and 23 members of a grand jury in order for the grand jury proceeding to move forward. In a grand jury proceeding a Prosecutor will call witnesses and present evidence before the panel in an effort to prove by a probable cause standard (more probable than not) that a crime has been committed. Unlike a jury trial, these proceedings are conducted in secret with the only individuals present being government attorneys, the witness being questioned, a court reporter, and possibly a translator. FRCP 6(d)(1). There is no defense attorney to represent the accused’s interest or to make timely objections to otherwise inadmissible evidence. For instance, it is proper to present hearsay evidence to a grand jury. United States v. Calandra, 414 U.S. 338 (1974). Of course the hope is that the Prosecutor is ethical enough to vet the garbage hearsay from that that is most assuredly reliable, if there is such a thing as reliable hearsay. Once all evidence has been presented, the grand jury retires to a deliberation room, much like a jury would in a jury trial, to determine whether enough of them believe probable cause has been established. In Missouri, had 9 of 12, or 75% of them believed probable cause was established, they would have returned a true bill of indictment. In the Federal system 12 jurors must believe probable cause is present to return a true bill of indictment. FRCP 6(f). If an indictment is issued it will likely be under seal until the defendant can be brought in to custody.
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