Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Failure to Indict in Ferguson

Last update: Thursday 11/27/14 @ 3:18 am
Like most black Americans, I went to bed three nights ago enraged by the failure of the grand jury in Ferguson, MO, to indict Darren Wilson, the 6' 4" 210 pound police officer who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 6' 4" 290 pound black teenager last summer. Young Mr. Brown first attracted Officer Wilson's attention because he was jaywalking in the street, instead of walking on the sidewalk. I was especially troubled by reports that Officer Wilson had fired twelve shots, hitting the unarmed 18 year-old six times. 

A. White men's fear of black men
As a 6'1" black man who has weighed over 200 pounds most of his adult life, I am personally familiar with the neurotic fear that some white men harbor for black men, especially larger black men, a fear that sometimes drove them to strike out at me verbally and/or physically in efforts to preempt imagined attacks from me that I never intended.  

How else can we understand events such as the assassination of Trayvon Martin, another unarmed black teenager, by a white civilian on a neighborhood watch two years ago? Or the far more gruesome assassination of Amadou Diallo by four of New York City's "Finest" back in 1999 when they fired 41 times and hit him 19 times at point blank range in the vestibule of his apartment building? Did the four armed police officers really have reasonable cause to fear that their lives were endangered by that unarmed 22 year old black man? 

Given these and other disturbing precedents, I could easily believe that Officer Wilson felt an unjustifiable fear that his life was endangered by the unarmed Michael Brown -- which is why he aimed to kill and not to disable. But I also had no doubt that a grand jury would not dignify such racially biased fears with a failure to indict. 

A trial would have entailed the kind of extensive investigation of the facts, including Officer Wilson's attitudes about black men, especially larger black men, that would have enabled a jury to distinguish between the reality of the threat posed by the unarmed teenager and the distorted perceptions of the smaller, but fully armed white police officer who told the grand jury that he thought that Michael Brown was a "demon." 

But all of the above considerations notwithstanding, I had no illusions that Officer Wilson's subsequent conviction would have been a sure thing, especially not in the the context of the institutional racism that still pervades Ferguson, MO. Moreover, the four New York City police officers who assassinated Amadou Diallo were indicted, tried, but acquitted by a jury that consisted of a black foreman plus three other black members and eight white members in large part because the officers confessed sincere and sorrowful regrets that they had made catastrophic errors in misreading Diallo's upheld wallet for a gun.

B. Prosecutors can persuade grand juries to indict ham sandwiches ... but not cops
Like most Americans of any color, I was aware that prosecutors rarely fail to convince grand juries to render indictments. But less than 30 minutes of Google searching corrected this misapprehension. There is a glaring exception to this Rule of Rarely Fail ==> Police officers rarely get indicted. I found two recent articles particularly noteworthy:
  • "It’s Incredibly Rare For A Grand Jury To Do What Ferguson’s Just Did" (Ben Casselman, FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver's statistical blog, 11/24/14)
    Unfortunately, the title of this article is grossly misleading. The article confirms that federal grand juries indict 99 percent of the time; but it goes on to report that police officers are rarely indicted by state or local grand juries. The author suggests a mixture of three reasons: (1) jurors are biased in favor of police officers -- presumably because they value the protection that police officers provide; (2) prosecutors are biased in favor of police officers -- presumably because police officers provide their cases, and (3) prosecutors only bring cases to grand juries they think they can win in subsequent trials; but in this case the political pressure was so intense that the St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch had no choice but to arraign a grand jury.

  • "Ferguson decision reflects juries’ tendency to give police benefit of doubt, experts say" (Kimberly Kindy, Washington Post, 11/24/14)
    This article confirms that police officers are rarely indicted in such killings. Given that a super majority of 9 of the 12 jurors was required to hand down an indictment, the Ferguson grand jury's failure to indict implies that at least 4 of the 12 jurors believed that Officer Wilson's killing Michael Brown with six out of twelve shots was not an excessive use of force. This article also notes that the 12 person grand jury contained six white men, three white women, two black women, and only one black man. Finally the article points out that the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled in favor of police officers -- so had the indictment led to a trial in which Officer Wilson was convicted, the conviction would probably have been overturned by a higher court, possibly by the Supreme Court itself.
Had I been aware of the patterns identified by these articles, I would have known what more knowledgeable observers had known beforehand ==> Indictment was a highly unlikely outcome.

C. White witches and black demons
The grand jury's inaction is an ironic variation on the trials held in late 17th century Salem Massachusetts. In those trials, testimony was obtained that white women were guilty of being witches; those women were subsequently executed, i.e., burned at the stake by the government because the testimony was regarded as credible. In early 21st century Ferguson Missouri, a black man was executed by an officer of the government; the officer subsequently gave testimony that the young man was guilty of being a "demon"; the officer's testimony was also regarded as credible.

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