Objective people could come to different conclusions about Darren Wilson’s guilt. But no one can argue objectively that the investigation of Michael Brown’s death was impartial and conducted appropriately.
Monday night, after Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown — my Facebook news feed exploded with anger: Wilson got away with murder. Police have free rein to keep shooting young black men. Black lives don’t count. And much more.
I had heard similar outrage when Trayvon Martin’s killer walked free. And yet, nothing changed; if it had, we wouldn’t be doing this all over again, would we? Will anything change this time? Or will we be right back here in another few months — another unarmed black youth killed by a cop or vigilante, who faces no substantive consequences?
After Trayvon, we already know how the nothing-changes path looks: Rather than evidence of systemic dysfunction, the case becomes an identity marker in the endless Red/Blue partisan battle: George Zimmerman is a racist murderer, or Trayvon Martin was a thug who got what was coming to him. There seems to be no objective truth; you just pick your side and wave its flag. To one side, the martyrdom of an innocent motivates change. To the other, failure of yet another an attempt to railroad a good man is proof that the system works, but just barely; give an inch, and the next time the grievance industry wins.
It’s already easy to see how that could happen again. If I had a different batch of Facebook friends, no doubt my news feed would have exploded with reactions of a different flavor: I always knew there was nothing to that case. It was obvious a bunch of the witnesses were lying, and when the grand jury had all the evidence in front of it, they agreed. What a shame Officer Wilson decided to resign — all the liars who smeared him should be prosecuted for perjury. The whole thing was all just an excuse to riot.
If we want anything different to happen this time, I think we need to re-establish the notion that there is an objective truth to this matter — the kind that persuades the uncommitted and converts some of the opposition — and that objectively, the system did not work. More than that, we need to argue that the reasons it did not work are not specific to the details of the Brown shooting; the same reasons will continue to endanger innocent people until something changes.
As in every attempt to speak the truth, this means choosing our words carefully, rather than saying whatever it feels good to say. That’s what I’m going to try to do.
Here’s my best statement of what went wrong: The process was rigged to get Darren Wilson off. And the same forces that created this rigged process will still be there for the next case.
Notice what I didn’t say: that Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. I didn’t say it because (although I suspect it) I don’t actually know that it’s true. But I have no doubt whatsoever that the process was rigged, and I believe that any person who looks at the situation objectively will have to agree.
In refusing to say that Wilson murdered Brown, I am also refusing to get into the minutia of the evidence — which witnesses were and weren’t believable, what the autopsy or the forensic evidence said, and so on. That’s one prime way that the Red/Blue debate goes nowhere: by producing fractal he-said/she-said arguments that spin off ever-smaller he-said/she-said arguments, until the larger point the case exemplifies is lost.*
You don’t have to go into any of that to see that the process was rigged at two levels:
- The Ferguson police were more focused on getting Wilson off than finding the truth.
- The prosecutor subverted the ordinary grand jury process in Wilson’s favor.
The police. The Washington Post outlined the ways that crime-scene protocols were ignored in gathering the initial evidence:
When Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson left the scene of the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, the officer returned to the police station unescorted, washed blood off his hands and placed his recently fired pistol into an evidence bag himself. … the officers who interviewed Wilson immediately after the shooting did not tape the conversations. The [grand jury] transcripts also showed that an investigator from the medical examiner’s office opted not to take measurements at the crime scene and arrived there believing that what happened between Brown and Wilson was “self-explanatory.’’
In addition, the Ferguson police violated their internal protocol by not creating a use-of-force report. As a result, Officer Wilson had the time to concoct an account of the shooting that covered all the points necessary to avoid guilt without directly contradicting the undeniable physical evidence. (Again, we do not know that he did so — perhaps his hard-to-believe story is actually true — we only know that the Ferguson police gave him that opportunity by violating all their usual procedures.)
If I had any temptation to give the Ferguson police the benefit of the doubt — maybe they were just so shocked that one of their own could be a suspect that they forgot how to do their jobs — it vanished when the police started acting as the unofficial Darren Wilson Public Relations Department. As a Justice Department spokesman put it: “There seems to be an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case.” At a time when the police were still withholding the name of the officer and the number of shots fired, they released video of Brown appearing to steal cigars from a convenience store, and leaked that the autopsy had shown THC in his bloodstream. As for the false rumor (with fake photo**, no less) that Wilson had suffered a fractured eye socket — we have no way of knowing whether that came from police or not.
The prosecutor. In the day-to-day course of their jobs, prosecutors work hand-in-glove with police. So if the police have circled the wagons around one of their own, it takes a brave local prosecutor to go against them.
That’s why Governor Nixon was urged to appoint a special prosecutor, one who had no prior relationship with either Michael Brown or the Ferguson police. He refused, saying:
There is a well-established process by which a prosecutor can recuse themselves from a pending investigation, and a special prosecutor be appointed. Departing from this established process could unnecessarily inject legal uncertainty into this matter and potentially jeopardize the prosecution.
In other words, procedural abnormalities that worked in Officer Wilson’s favor were fine, but any that might counter that bias would “inject legal uncertainty”.
As a result, Prosecutor Bob McCulloch engineered something that bore no resemblance to a typical grand jury.
The ordinary purpose of a grand jury is to determine whether probable cause exists to move on to a trial. In other words: Does the prosecution have a case that would be convincing in the absence of any defense rebuttal? For this reason, a grand jury investigation is entirely the prosecutor’s show; he is under no obligation to present evidence that favors the suspect, or to challenge the testimony of witnesses against the suspect.
As Justice Scalia (of all people) wrote in a different case:
It is the grand jury’s function not ‘to enquire … upon what foundation [the charge may be] denied,’ or otherwise to try the suspect’s defenses, but only to examine ‘upon what foundation [the charge] is made’ by the prosecutor. … As a consequence, 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.
But the ordinary grand jury process assumes the prosecutor is motivated to get an indictment; it completely misfires if his intention is not to get an indictment.
Instead, McCulloch ran the equivalent of a trial, but one that had only a defense attorney, not a prosecutor. Law Professor Marjorie Cohn explained:
[McCulloch] put the grand jury in the role of being a trier of fact, which is not its role. The grand jury was put in the position of basically being a jury, but in a one-sided, closed proceeding.
Witnesses whose testimony indicated that Wilson was not in danger, that Brown was far away and surrendering when Wilson gunned him down, were grilled hard. In McCulloch’s words, they were “confronted with the inconsistencies and conflict between their statements and the physical evidence”.
But one witness was treated with unusual deference: Officer Wilson himself. His unusual story — in which Brown does everything he can to goad Wilson into shooting him — was not challenged in any way. MSNBC legal analyst Lisa Bloom tweeted that the cross-examination “Should have been a grueling session, not the tea party the transcript shows.” She focused on the conflict between Wilson’s statements about Brown’s attack and his incredible strength, and Wilson’s complete lack of injury when examined afterwards.
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi suggests another opening that a serious cross-examination might have pursued:
Wilson’s description of Brown as a “demon” with superhuman strength and unremitting rage, and his description of the neighborhood as “hostile,” illustrate implicit racial bias that taints use-of-force decisions. These biases surely contribute to the fact that African Americans are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than whites in the U.S., but the statement’s racial implications remained unexamined.
Before Wilson testified to the grand jury on September 16, prosecutors gave grand jurors an outdated statute that said police officers can shoot a suspect that’s simply fleeing. This statute was deemed unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1985; the court ruled that a fleeing suspect must, at least in a police officer’s reasonable view, pose a dangerous threat to someone or have committed a violent felony to justify a shooting.
Like the Ferguson police, McCulloch also joined the Wilson public-relations effort. Repeated leaks from the grand jury were all favorable to Wilson. His public statement announcing the non-indictment — itself a nearly unprecedented event — “read like a closing argument for the defense” according to a University of Missouri law professor.
His release of the grand jury transcripts — also highly unusual — merely reinforced the need for a trial. As The New Republic‘s Noam Scheiber put it:
The problem with this is that we already have a forum for establishing the underlying facts of a case—and, no less important, for convincing the public that justice is being served in a particular case. It’s called a trial. It, rather than the post-grand jury press conference, is where lawyers typically introduce mounds of evidence to the public, litigate arguments extensively, and generally establish whether or not someone is guilty of a crime.
Objective people could come to different conclusions about Wilson’s guilt. They might disagree about which witnesses were credible, and envision the scene differently. But no one can argue objectively the investigation of Brown’s death was impartial and conducted appropriately.
So what if the process was rigged? If you believe Wilson was justified, you may not care that Michael Brown’s killing was never impartially investigated. The reason you should is that police killings and other police violence against unarmed victims in questionable circumstances is not rare in America.
No one keeps track of the exact number, but at least 400 Americans are killed by police each year, compared to (for example) six in Germany in 2011. No one knows how many of these shootings were of unarmed and otherwise unthreatening people, but now that the world is filling up with cameras, we’re seeing more and more videos of such cases. (Conor Friedersdorf collects several.)
You and I weren’t the only ones watching the rigged process that protected Darren Wilson. Police all over the country were watching with great interest. And they learned that if they over-react and kill someone — perhaps particularly if they kill a young black man, but more generally as well — they are very unlikely to be held accountable. Their colleagues will protect them, and prosecutors will not want to take a stand against them.
Several reforms are needed, which Friedersdorf lists: lapel cameras for police, dashboard cameras for police cars, independent prosecutors in cases where police are suspects, and more.
Wisconsin has such an independent-prosecutor law, probably because that state had the perfect poster case: Michael Bell, a white retired Air Force colonel whose son was shot in the head by police in 2004 after his hands had been cuffed behind his back. With the Bell case in front of them, even white citizens understood that unjustified police violence could happen to them.
Black citizens had always known.
* It’s worth pointing out that endless argument is not a draw; it’s a victory for the side that believes nothing should change.
** The fake photo trick was also used in the Trayvon Martin case.