A grand jury’s refusal to indict former Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, together with the violence that has ensued, forces us to confront tough questions.
Yes, the Constitution gives us the right peaceably to assemble — peaceably being the operative word there — and to petition our government for redress. But the worthwhile message of those who would exercise these rights largely has been lost amongst all of the violence, arson and looting that has occurred in Ferguson and elsewhere.
The Brown shooting might have been an opportunity for those who believe change to the justice system is necessary to make their voices heard. Instead, too many have used it as an excuse to satisfy their own greed and destructive impulses.
Should certain police practices be more closely examined in light of the Brown shooting? And should certain grand jury practices also be reconsidered? Maybe, but civil unrest impedes those processes rather than facilitate them.
If one dismisses the actions of police, prosecutors, and judges as inherently biased and hopelessly flawed because the deck is stacked against the accused, grand and trial juries seem to be ideal checks against government overreaching. Yet too many of us seem to consider jury service an imposition rather than the privilege that it is.
As well, many of us, it seems, have the attitude “rights, procedural protections and due process for me, but not for thee — especially when thou art a law enforcement officer.” But either everyone accused of a crime is entitled to these benefits, or no one is.
Wilson was convicted by many in the media and in the court of public opinion long before the grand jury decided probable cause did not exist to indict him and to send his case to a court of law. But justice should be what a grand jury, after considering the facts, says it is: no more, and no less.
While grand juries often have been dismissed with the excuse that a prosecutor can get such a jury to indict a ham sandwich, and while the prosecutor usually tightly controls the process, reportedly, there were few (if any) restrictions on what the prosecutor allowed grand jurors to consider in this case.
Yet, despite reports that the prosecutor did little to orchestrate the process, that some African Americans served on the grand jury, and that some African American witnesses offered testimony favorable to Wilson, many still distrust this process simply because they don’t like the result.
Our justice system extends certain rights and protections to those who are accused of crimes. Cases such as Darren Wilson’s force us to decide whether we really believe the axiom that it’s better for a hundred guilty people to go free than for one innocent person to be convicted.
As much as we might dislike results in certain cases, “rule of law” still is better than “rule of men” — and it’s certainly better than “justice by mobocracy.”
Ken K. Gourdin of Tooele is a certified paralegal.