Prudent and Fair Outcome for Grand Jury: Let a Jury Decide


Timothy McBride, PhD, Professor, Brown School

These points may seem obvious to many people, but in reading the comments and opinions of the general public, I am not sure all of this is well understood, so I feel compelled to make them.

The Grand Jury is meeting now to decide whether to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in relation to the death of Michael Brown, and has been meeting for about two months now. Reports are that the Grand Jury may make decisions on the case soon, perhaps within the next month – or maybe it will still take a while.

There has been much debate, much of it heated and emotional, about whether Officer Wilson should be indicted. With regard to this, a few comments seem important:

  • No one, other than Officer Wilson, knows precisely what happened that day and what motivated him to shoot an unarmed person, Michael Brown, given that Mr. Brown is deceased and cannot speak for his side of the story.
  • The Grand Jury has seen more evidence – apparently ALL the evidence, according to the Prosecutor’s strategy – than anyone in the public has, though anyone closely following the news on this has read reports on many of the pieces of evidence, including eyewitness testimony. Some Grand Jury evidence apparently has been leaked to the public.
  • If there is any reason to suspect a reasonable doubt that Officer Wilson may have been guilty of a crime in his handling of the situation, then certainly one way to proceed is to indict the officer and let a jury of his peers decide whether he is guilty or not guilty.
  • This is how our justice system works.
  • However, some observers seem to think that that the Grand Jury’s role is to make a definitive decision at this point about guilt or innocence, or that if the Grand Jury decides to indict the officer, then this suggests he is guilty. Of course it does not. It just means the Grand Jury thinks there is enough reason to go trial and let a carefully-selected jury decide.
  • My view is that the prudent thing to do at this point is to let an actual jury decide this case. There are enough questions in most people’s minds about this that it is essential that an airing of all the evidence be done in a public forum, a courthouse, and carefully in front of a judge and a jury.
  • If the Grand Jury prematurely decides to not let this go to trial, then I would ask: When and how will the public ever see all the evidence they have seen? And won’t that fuel more distrust and tension?

Michael Brown, his family, Officer Wilson, and for that matter the entire St. Louis community and nation are entitled to justice – which is a fair, careful and judicious airing of the evidence in public.


  1. This article appears to either be not well drafted, or not well reasoned, in particular with respect to the the second to last bullet point.

    It is never “prudent” for a grand jury to make the determination as to whether or not to issue a grand jury indictment on the basis of whether there are questions in “most people’s minds” (presumably, this refers to the general public) about the matter being considered.

    Rather, the “prudent” thing for a grand jury to do, in each and every instance and without exception, is to determine whether or not to issue an indictment on the basis of the grand jury’s determination as to whether or not there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed by the accused based on the evidence presented to the grand jury, irrespective of, and even in spite of, public opinion.

    This becomes particularly clear in the context of history. Criticism directed toward the grand jury process has historically been towards alleged “rubber stamping” practices of indictments by grand juries or the consideration by the grand jury members of public opinion or bias (including racial bias).

    Advocating for anything other than the strict adherence to the rules, standards and purposes of the grand jury process with respect to a matter before a grand jury due to particular beliefs or concerns about the matter is myopic and reactionary.

    1. I agree with you, but “strict adherence to the rules, standards and purposes of the grand jury process” has already been forfeited. The anonymous media leaks coming out of this grand jury process prove that there is at least one unethical actor in these proceedings.

      1. Andrew is absolutely correct! And Tracy, you need to understand something. The only people bound to secrecy in the grand jury are the grand jurors, the prosecutors, and the investigators and others who have access to GRAND JURY material. Daren Wilson could’ve shared his testimony with anyone he so desired. The Coroner’s office could’ve done the same. The doctor performing the autopsy, the same. Even the police officers involved, though bound by department policy, are not bound by grand jury rules except with regard to grand jury testimony and evidence gathered through grand jury subpoena. So you are greatly misinformed to think that the leaks mean there is an unethical character in the grand jury. It simply means that the hundreds of people who know these various things, and who are not bound by the grand jury rules, decided to share some information to counter the complete unethical and blatantly false analyses of the Michael Brown camp, especially the lawyers and the supposed medical experts.

        1. How, then, are you able to declare anything blatantly false? Do you have access to the grand jury information, or have you just chosen sides? You cannot be both for the grand jury process and have already decided the outcome.

          Like everyone else of good faith, I want very much for this system to work, and for the findings of the grand jury to be seen as fair and definitive. But how can the community have faith in a system that seems so full of missteps and procedural errors. This is not the criminal justice system I signed up for.

          The leaks coming out of this process cannot be coming from anyone “in the Michael Brown camp” because these leaks have continued the narrative in favor of officer Wilson having just cause to use deadly force. Your assertion is illogical. I don’t have any idea where the leaks are coming from, but their motivation is transparent. The U.S. Department of Justice seems to share my concern for these leaks, so it’s not just my lack of understanding. Or are they in on it too?

          1. There are no leaks Tracy! And my decision is based on the evidence. There are those of us who understand the use of deadly force, and essentially all of us agreed from day 1 of this mess that the shooting was justified. Based on the evidence, there would have been no grand jury had it been white on white, black on white, or black on black. Why is it so hard for people to accept that when a 300-pound thug who just committed a robbery and then attacked a police officer may have been justifiably shot by a very good and dedicated police officer? And I rejected outright the nonsense being spewed by the lawyer for Brown, because he did the same thing in the George Zimmerman case, and because anyone who understands the evidence even at a basic level knows the lawyer was/is talking complete nonsense. The bottom line is this…the system works! Had Brown survived, the system would’ve sent him to prison where he would’ve belonged. And the DOJ shares your concerns IF there was a grand jury leak. There wasn’t. The problem is, people keep moving the goal posts. First, Michael Brown was minding his own business, then after we learn he robbed a convenience store, it shifted to this idea that Wilson was pulling him inside his vehicle through the window. When that was proven false, and that Brown may have been justifiably shot from inside the car, then it became all about what happened outside the car. And now, when it appears that Wilson’s version is correct, even what happened outside the car, now the goal post has been moved once again to focus on the leaks. This has become like a one big Monty Python skit! And now Brown’s mother has been identified as the person guilty of a strong armed robbery. It has sadly become laughable.

          2. John, following is a comment you wrote on this web site 3 months ago. I quote it here so that you can contrast your opinion then with what you have just written:

            You wrote: “Either Officer Wilson needs to be prosecuted, or he needs to be honored for trying his best to protect the community he is sworn to serve. We simply don’t know which it is yet. Let’s have a larger discussion about race and equality, but let’s leave Officer Wilson and Michael Brown out of the debate. In the end, it probably had little if anything to do with race.”

            Three months ago, you didn’t know what the facts of the case were. Today, you say you’ve known from “Day 1 of this mess.”

            Three months ago, “it probably had little if anything to do with race.” Today you claim it was entirely about the racial status of Mike Brown and Darren Wilson, and any other racial combination would not have even made it to a grand jury.

            Forgive me if I am disinclined to continue discussing this with you. I am having a hard time respecting the sincerity of your comments.

          3. Tracy, you’re giving me a headache! Okay, I jest. But once again you are moving the goal posts to focus now on me instead of the issue at hand. And your crude analysis of my words is…well, crude! You accuse me of saying the shooting had nothing to do with race, and then later saying it did involve race. Nice try my friend. Read my next statement very closely, because it combines both of my previous statements…the shooting of Michael Brown likely had nothing to do with race, however, the decision to use the grand jury to investigate that shooting likely had everything to do with race.” Now can you see the difference in what I said?? Just curious, but do you believe in the constitutional process? If the mixed-race grand jury rules that the shooting was justified, will you accept that? Without doing what most of the academics in this forum have done, that being to deflect away from the issue by arguing the higher social issues, what will your impressions of Michael Brown be if the grand jury says he was justifiably shot after committing multiple felonies while high on drugs? One of those felonies was to assault a FERGUSON business owner. Will you honor him? Will you support WU flying their flag at half mast each year on Michael Brown’s death date? And btw, do you support the arrest of his mother for assault and robbery? What a debacle this has become.

        2. So Andrew is correct because you say so, is that it? And you are the last authority on this matter, and what exactly are your qualifications to be the last authority on this matter? The author of this blogg is completely correct and spot on, there is way to much mistrust in our justice system and those who are charged to enforce it. Again in your last line, what are your qualifications to judge these (in your words) supposedly medical experts?

          1. I use the same criteria as everyone else who still thinks Darren Wilson did something wrong, or that Michael Brown is a martyr, or that black America is a victim of white privilege. I’m an expert because I’m too closed minded to even considered anyone else’s perspective or bother with evaluating the evidence. I’m also an expert because I’m an academic, which means I’m so disconnected from the real world, and so in need of feeling relevant that I must be right.

    2. Absolutely correct. In each and every
      instance and without exception, a Grand Jury is to determine whether or not to issue
      an indictment on the basis of evidence presented to them regardless of, and even in spite of, public opinion. Following Dr. McBride’s circular logic, our legal system should abandon the Grand Jury process altogether. Not wise.

      The sad thing is, we’ve already heard Al Sharpton and others of his ilk announce that “they” [law enforcement/courts] control all the evidence and will “probably just make up whatever evidence they need” to “do whatever they want”. Many protestors don’t care what the evidence shows. They just want Officer Wilson “DEAD” as chanted by many seen on local news coverage.

      And, can we stop already with the “unarmed” bit? Lethal force response is not determined by whether or not your attacker is armed. It is whether or not they have the means, opportunity, and intent to kill you. Period.

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