Amy Gehrt: Justice is not color-blind
A St. Louis County grand jury’s decision to not indict a white police officer in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager inflamed already tense race relations Monday, leading to protests, marches and rallies around the country.
Demonstrations took place in more than 115 U.S. cities as participants sought to give voice to the frustration they felt following St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s announcement that Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson would not be charged in the shooting death of Michael Brown.
McCulloch spoke for about 45 minutes Monday night, reporting that the jury had heard more than 70 hours of testimony from more than 60 witnesses over 25 days. He repeatedly mentioned what he called inconsistencies in witnesses’ accounts. He confirmed that Wilson fired 12 rounds. What he failed to mention even once, however, was that Brown was unarmed.
Perhaps it was an oversight. Or maybe McCulloch chose not to mention it because he thought it would somehow confuse the issue. However, by omitting that detail, it raises questions in my mind about how the case was presented to the grand jury. His ability to be objective had been questioned since the start of the proceedings, and a number of the nation’s top legal minds have questioned McCulloch’s motives.
“It looks like he wanted to create the appearance that there had been a public trial when in fact there hadn’t been,” Noah Feldman, a constitutional law professor at Harvard, told The New York Times, saying it gave the impression “that the prosecutor didn’t want an indictment — and didn’t want to be blamed for not getting one.”
Lisa Bloom, an MSNBC legal analyst, spoke out even more forcefully. She sent a series of tweets about the case Tuesday, questioning why no one went after the “inconsistencies and lies” on cross-examination of Wilson and providing examples of what she thought should have been asked, such as “how did Brown solidly, ‘full force’ punch you 2x in face, & yet you have no injuries to reflect that?”
She went on to add, “So many missed opportunities for cross examination of Wilson. Should have been a grueling session, not the tea party the transcript shows.”
The National Bar Association — the United States’ oldest and largest network of predominantly African-American attorneys and judges — released a statement questioning the grand jury’s decision and calling for federal charges against Wilson.
It has long been said that prosecutors could indict a ham sandwich, and for good reason. As Ben Casselman of FiveThirtyEight.com reports, Bureau of Justice Statistics show that in 2010, the most recent available data, out of 162,000 cases prosecuted, federally grand juries only failed to indict 11 times.
“If the prosecutor wants an indictment and doesn’t get one, something has gone horribly wrong,” Andrew D. Leipold, a University of Illinois law professor, told FiveThirtyEight.com. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Statistics for cases prosecuted on a state level are not available, but one could reasonably expect the numbers would be somewhat similar.
But Casselman goes on to note that police-involved shootings seem to be an exception, although there are no numbers available on that, either.
As Chicago lawyer Lori Lightfoot, who used to be the chief administrator of the Chicago Police Department division charged with investigating officer-involved shootings, told The Associated Press, “A police officer is not like a normal citizen who discharges their weapon. There is a presumption that somebody who is a peace officer, and is thereby authorized to use lethal force, used it correctly.”
However, she cautioned, that doesn’t mean that an officer’s perception of danger might not be colored, strongly, by a suspect’s race. Lightfoot said that can be especially true in a community such as Ferguson, where a predominantly white police force patrols a city in which 71 percent of the 21,000 residents are black.
“Take any environment you live in — if there’s not diversity in your workplace, that is a void in your experience,” Lightfoot explained.
It’s mind-boggling to think this all started over jaywalking, something so minor that cops rarely even bother with it. Yet, inexplicably, Wilson did — and I can’t help wondering if it was perhaps because of the skin color of the two teens.
The truth is, given the conflicting witness accounts, we may never really know what happened. If someone had recorded the incident, or if Wilson had been wearing a camera, as many police departments require officers to do, events may have unfolded very differently. And if Wilson had not declined to carry a Taser because he felt “it is not the most comfortable thing,” Brown may even be alive right now.
Instead, an 18-year-old boy is dead and his family is grieving. And across the nation, people are confronting the realization, once again, that while Lady Justice may often be depicted wearing a blindfold, justice is not yet truly color-blind.
Pekin Daily Times city editor Amy Gehrt may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.