What a grand jury does, and why the Darren Wilson case was unusual

Joy, PeterPeter A. Joy, JD, Henry Hitchcock Professor of Law

Now that the grand jury has decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year old man, there remain many questions about this grand jury and generally about the use of grand juries in the United States.

The fact that twelve randomly picked impartial citizens played such a key role in the matter is a unique feature of the criminal justice system in the US.

The US Constitution and all state constitutions provide for grand juries. In federal criminal cases, federal grand juries consisting of sixteen to twenty-three members make all decisions to indict, and at least twelve grand jurors are necessary in an indictment, commonly called a “true bill.”

Provisions in state constitutions vary in terms of the size of grand juries. The Missouri Constitution calls for a twelve member grand jury, nine of which must concur in an indictment.

Grand jurors in St Louis County are chosen from the same jury pool as trial jurors. A judge selects the grand jurors, and the judge tries to ensure that jurors are representative of the community.

The grand jurors who heard the case involving Michael Brown’s death were chosen in May, long before his death in August.

The judge chose nine white jurors and three African American jurors. Seven jurors were men and five jurors were women. They were from all parts of St Louis County, and the percentage of African Americans (25%) on the grand jury roughly equals the percentage of African Americans (24%) in St Louis County. The grand jury’s term was originally four months long – the normal term – but a judge extended the term in order for the grand jury to consider possible charges against Darren Wilson.

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