Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

State V Wilson: An Analysis of Legal Processes and Problems

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

State V Wilson: An Analysis of Legal Processes and Problems

Article excerpt

In the months after the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, by an on-duty police officer of European descent, Darren Wilson, the airways, Internet and print media were jammed with commentators and purported experts dissecting and speculating upon nearly every aspect of the case. Criticism was heaped on the prosecutor, Bob McCullough, for his handling of the case and failure to secure an indictment (Hamill, 2014; Milbank, 2014). An indictment is a charging document written by the prosecution which specifies particular charges against a particular defendant and serves as the basis for a criminal trial once it is approved by a grand jury. The grand jury approval process is discussed in more detail later in the article. More than one commentator has embellished their claim of McCullough's supposed malfeasance by loudly proclaiming that any decent prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich (Bello, Toppo & Eisler, 2014; Milbank, 2014).

While the comment is absurd on its face, it nevertheless captures the notion, albeit in hyperbolic fashion, that the grand jury is a process run by the prosecutor and potentially easily subverted by that office ([section] 540.140 R.S.Mo. 2014). More than one source implied that McCullough was an experienced prosecutor and his office could have easily obtained an indictment (see, e.g., Hamill, 2014). The fact that no indictment was forthcoming was taken as evidence that McCullough's office must have done something nefarious and somehow persuaded the grand jury not to issue a true bill.

A true bill, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the grand jury's "verdict" and indicates that a majority of grand jurors believe that there is probable cause to support the proposed charge(s). Probable cause requires sufficient evidence to convince a reasonable person to conclude that it is more likely than not that the accused committed the crime(s) charged. It is the grand jury's job to determine whether there is probable cause to support the charges proposed by the prosecutor in the indictment. If a majority of the grand jurors determine that the evidence indicates that it is more likely than not that the defendant committed the charged offense(s), the grand jury is supposed to issue a true bill, otherwise the grand jury should decline to indict, indicating that less than a majority of the grand jurors believe there is probable cause to support the charges. It should be noted that a grand jury's failure to issue a true bill does not preclude later prosecution so long as the later charges are brought within the applicable statute of limitations period and properly approved.

While the criticism heaped on McCullough for his handling of the case against Darren Wilson was plentiful, it often lacked nuanced legal analysis. In other words, just because the outcome was unpalatable to many people does not necessarily mean that McCullough did anything legally improper. This article will examine the handling of State v Wilson from a legal perspective and will assess the extent to which it comported with the law and normal practice and will make recommendations for legal reforms to address noted short-comings.

History and Function of Grand Juries

The grand jury is an institution that arose in England during the common law era (Rees, 2001). Prior to the grand jury, there was no real check on the executive's (king's) authority to bring charges against citizens. The government could prosecute whoever it wanted for whatever reason it chose. From its inception, therefore, the grand jury was meant to protect citizens from a government bent on bringing arbitrary and abusive charges (Myers, 2012). The grand jury was meant as a check on over-zealous prosecution and as a means of ensuring that there was some basis in fact for any charges brought. It was not designed to ensure that charges that were appropriate were actually brought, apparently on the theory that prosecutors do not need any encouragement to prosecute. …

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