I don’t envy the task of investigators or of the grand jury that will be charged with determining whether Ferguson, Missouri, Police Officer Darren Wilson acted criminally when he shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. And actions of state and federal officials may complicate the task even further.
President Obama has had a nasty habit of injecting himself into local legal controversies. For example, he said Cambridge, Massachusetts, police “acted stupidly” after they arrested black Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates when he became unruly after police asked him to justify his presence on the premises when he locked himself out of his house.
Similarly, during the George Zimmerman case, in which Zimmerman was accused of murdering unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, Obama said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” I believe comments such as these are harmful to the functioning of the criminal justice system, not to mention prejudicing justice itself — particularly when they come from the president of the United States.
To his credit, President Obama has, to the best of my knowledge, avoided a similar misstep with respect to recent events in Ferguson.
It remains to be seen, however — given the facts that Attorney General Eric Holder has publicly said the U.S. is full of “cowards” when it comes to race and that a large portion of the animus toward President Obama is based, not on disagreement with his policies, but rather, on his race — whether sending Holder to Ferguson will be any better.
None of this, however, is to say that there are no good reasons for Holder to go to Ferguson. If he wants to oversee the investigation personally and to ensure that it’s fair and thorough, or even if he simply wants to create the impression that the Administration is effectively engaged in the matter, either of those reasons (or both) is valid.
However, Holder does run the risk that his mere presence may prejudice the process. What if the members of the grand jury, implicitly or explicitly, subtly or not, take his presence as a cue (evidence, or lack thereof, notwithstanding) that they should hand down an indictment against Wilson?
Granted, the chances of any grand jury member commenting publicly on his motivation is virtually nil, but the only thing worse than a naked improper motivation is a covert one. At least action can be taken to counteract the former, while it is impossible to counteract the latter.
And while President Obama has avoided injecting himself into the current controversy, alas, the same cannot be said of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon. Nixon should have said that investigators and the grand jury are obligated to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Instead, he presumed the investigation’s outcome — and Officer Wilson’s guilt.
If the grand jury doesn’t hand down an indictment, or if investigators clear Wilson, the unrest that has followed the shooting itself likely will pale in comparison to that which will follow such a decision. As imperfect as the justice system’s function might be, however, “justice” by mobocracy is never the answer.
Ken K. Gourdin, Tooele, is a certified paralegal.