Thursday, November 27, 2014

The problem w/ Ferguson & the failure to indict.

Let's talk about Ferguson. I know, I know, it's been discussed at length in various formats. The racial aspect of the whole situation is obvious & has been a catalyst for an overall reflection on the way we as a society still view non-whites.

But, let's set aside the racial element for a minute & look at why the failure to indict Darren Wilson was incorrect from a purely legal standpoint. Let's strip it down to the basic, legal components & analyze. Other commentators have done better at discussing the racial divide that Ferguson has brought clearly into focus so I will leave that to those who can discuss that more eloquently than me. Tonight, we will just talk about the problems with the lack of indictment based on the legal framework.

First, it's important to understand what a grand jury actually is & what its purpose is. A grand jury is not a fact finding jury. They aren't there to determine what happened, what the verdict should be, etc. Instead, the grand jury takes on the role of the prosecution, to review the evidence collected by police to determine if there is probable cause for a charge.

There are various standards in the legal world for suspicion of criminal activity. Here's the run down:

Beyond a reasonable doubt: required to convict someone at trial. This is the highest standard in court. In order to convict, there must be no other reasonable explanations for was happened other than the defendant committed the offense.

Clear & convincing: this is a lower standard than beyond a reasonable doubt but does require the state to prove its claims. The evidence they present has to be clear & convincing that the defendant is guilty. In MN, this is the standard for probation violation hrgs.

Preponderance of the evidence: a step below clear & convincing. Common in civil cases. Basically, if the evidence is 51% in favor of the state, this standard has been met.

Probable cause: an even lower standard. Requires that there be at least some evidence tying the defendant to the allegations. Generally, this doesn't require much in the way of evidence. They only need to have something. It doesn't require the evidence be credible or reliable, just that it exists.

Reasonable, articulable suspicion: one step above a hunch. There has to be something that can be used to support the suspicion, it can't just be a gut feeling or something like that. But it doesn't have to be real strong or compelling. If you have a hunch & can throw out a couple of reasons why you have that hunch, you've likely met this standard. This is used by police to justify searches/seizures.

So, probable cause is one of the lowest standards in the criminal world. It doesn't take a lot to get to probable cause.

When a complaint is charged, there is a statement of probable cause that outlines the state's best evidence. It's not all the evidence, it's the evidence that the state thinks is most helpful to show there's probable cause. And while defendants can challenge probable cause for a charge, it's hard to win bc it's not a high standard to meet. Basically, the only way defendants win is if there is absolutely no evidence of the defendant committing the crime. And not "no evidence" as in "we're disagreeing with the state's evidence bc it's so weak." It means "no evidence" as in there are elements of the crime that they actually can't provide any evidence for. An example of this would be a complaint I had a few years ago that charged my client with possession of marijuana. The complaint stated that my client had been arrested on a warrant & when searched at the jail, they found cocaine on him. No marijuana was ever mentioned in the complaint, other than in the charge. This is a prime example of "no evidence." The charge lacked probable cause bc there was no evidence of possession of marijuana. Now, in this case, the state just had to adjust the charge to the right charge for the cocaine but that is what I mean by "no evidence." Literally, no evidence.

If there is a dispute about evidence, then it's enough to get probable cause. It's a trial jury's role to sift through the evidence & decide what happened. In contrast, a grand jury stands in the place of the prosecutor to decide whether there's probable cause for a charge.

So, now that we are all on the same page, let's peek at the problem w/ the Ferguson grand jury.

The problem is that there WAS a dispute about evidence. There WAS a conflict btwn the various witnesses' testimonies. There WAS evidence that could be used to indict Wilson. There was also evidence that could show Wilson was acting in self-defense. The problem is that a fact-finding jury will never get to review all the evidence, subjected to cross-examination, and make a determination about the disputed facts. And that is what a trial jury is supposed to do when there are facts in dispute.

The grand jury in this case went beyond what it should have done, weighing the credibility of witnesses & reaching a conclusion about the facts. Instead, it should have limited its review to whether there was probable cause, not whether there was a self-defense claim or which witnesses to believe. That's not the role of a grand jury.

The prosecutors threw this grand jury proceeding to fit a social demand. The prosecutors could have easily gotten the indictment if they had really wanted it. They could have presented only evidence that was favorable to getting an indictment, just like most prosecuters do when they file a complaint. They could have easily gotten that indictment but they didn't want to. And that's the problem. They wanted to protect a cop, rather than making him explain his actions in court & allowing the facts to come out under cross-exam & allowing a trial jury to decide.

The most troubling thing for me is that Ferguson shows that, no matter what side they may be on, the police always win. The government gets its way. The government can actually kill us w/o repercussion now, because we don't make them answer for their actions & we don't hold them accountable when they go too far. And that's truly terrifying.


  1. Excellent analysis.

  2. Anonymous10:58 AM

    Probable cause is an extremely low bar. Filing charges whenever there is probable cause is unfair to people as it disrupts their lives in cases in which a guilty verdict is unlikely. The proper standard for filing criminal charges is much higher.

    In the non-grand jury state of Washington, the Legislature has set the following non-binding standards:

    Crimes against persons will be filed if sufficient admissible evidence exists, which, when considered with the most plausible, reasonably foreseeable defense that could be raised under the evidence, would justify conviction by a reasonable and objective fact finder.

    Crimes against property/other crimes will be filed if the admissible evidence is of such convincing force as to make it probable that a reasonable and objective fact finder would convict after hearing all the admissible evidence and the most plausible defense that could be raised.

    See RCW 9.94A.411(2)(a)