In pursuit of closure on the Michael Brown case

Zack Burley

Last week, I got into a testy argument with a dear old friend of mine. Like so many arguments, it originated out of a subtle difference of perspective. We began cordially, presenting various facts and opinions, attempting to understand each other’s point. But as the argument went on, things began to unravel. Biases, emotional outbursts and hard-to-spot fallacies emerged as hindrances to our efforts to come to terms. By the end, discussion had devolved to two monologues; both talking, neither listening. We walked away without resolution, with more nagging questions than insightful answers. I realized that each of us only had pieces of the puzzle, spun by our respective sources, and we never really had reconciled that.

We were arguing about Ferguson.

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Ferguson, where debate has ranged from race relations; to police misconduct, militarization and reflections of constituency; onto protesting ethic; to questions of justice and equal protection; to media sensationalism and many many more subjects of discussion.

On Nov. 24, the day after my problematic debate, the grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson for Michael Brown’s death. This seemed odd. From what I understood about grand juries, indictments have a lower burden of proof than an actual trial, since they decide if there is enough evidence to go to trial at all. I had to find out why. This time, I was determined to get the facts and firsthand accounts, so future discussions were not handicapped by ignorance. I looked at the evidence and the lengthy transcripts available on the website of St. Louis Public Radio.

When I finished, a few things stood out. Darren Wilson testified for hours, and was among the first to testify. I don’t consider myself a legal expert, but I didn’t realize it was standard operating procedure to let the investigated party talk face to face with the jurors. So I tried to find a credible expert opinion on how grand juries usually function. I found it, in a 1992 decision written by Justice Scalia of the Supreme Court. “Neither in this country nor in England has the suspect under investigation by the grand jury ever been thought to have a right to testify or to have exculpatory evidence presented” (exculpatory means favorable to the defendant). To be clear, I found no law against allowing a suspect to testify, or presenting exculpatory evidence. Prosecutor Robert McCulloch made the decision to include all available evidence, reportedly due to the media attention.

Another interesting fact about grand juries; they almost always indict … unless it involves a police officer. Perhaps this is due to a trust of officers, or maybe its because of the close working relationship between officers and prosecutors, or perhaps even that police shootings are more likely to be brought before a grand jury due to their public nature even if it is a weak case.

Regardless, we don’t know if Darren Wilson killed in cold blood or self-defense. The facts are not so clear to settle on either conclusion. But we do know an officer of the peace killed an unarmed boy with nine bullets. That is a fact. And a grand jury just let him off without a trial, despite there being plenty of doubt in witness testimony. Doubt in the minds of a grand jury should lead to indictment, so due process can sort out a ruling in public, with prosecutorial and defense lawyers, with juror unanimity. But even if a trial was granted, justice isn’t certain no matter what.

So next time I argue with my friend, I’ll be informed with the facts. But that doesn’t provide clarity; for me, for Brown’s parents, or for the millions of people still unable to reconcile what they believe with what we cannot know. Not really.

Collegian Editorial Editor Zack Burley can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @zackburley.