ST. LOUIS — Within days, weeks, or months, a St. Louis County grand jury will decide the fate of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
The grand jury could decide to free Wilson, or criminally charge him in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. The panel has heard evidence in a proceeding akin to an actual trial, and prosecutor Bob McCullouch has said a decision in the case could come as soon as this month.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office spokesman Edward Magee said in an email to Fusion News that the grand jury still has not reached a decision. He said that among the crimes Wilson could be charged with are involuntary manslaughter, voluntary manslaughter, second-degree murder or first-degree murder. The sentences vary from a year in prison to life without parole.
The grand jury process is secret and can vary depending on the case. Jurors listen to evidence from a team of prosecutors to determine whether there is probable cause that a crime has been committed. If probable cause is found, an indictment, or “true bill,” is issued; if not, the grand jury issues a no-indictment.
In Missouri, 12 people serve on grand jury. In the Wilson case, nine grand jurors are white and three are black. There are five women and seven men. The panel began meeting in May, but has been focused exclusively on the Wilson case since August. A judge has extended their term until January.
In most cases, grand juries do not take long to make a decision. Even for alleged crimes involving the death of a person, evidence can be presented in a day. It is unusual for a grand jury to hear evidence for more than a day unless the nature of the crime is more complicated or if the person accused is someone who typically meets a higher standard, like a public official.
“It would normally not take as long as this case has taken,” said Washington University law professor Peter Joy of the Wilson case. “In my memory, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a grand jury hearing as much evidence as this one.”
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Whereas a typical grand jury might only hear a summary of the evidence from a head detective and testimony from one or two witnesses, the panel hearing the Wilson case was presented with far more evidence. And in a rare move, the accused was among the witnesses to testify.
This can be a risky move, as grand jury testimony could be used to impeach a witness in the event of a trial, Joy explained. However, testifying could also be beneficial to an accused person if they are able to present a justification that might lead a grand jury to find them innocent.
Prosecutors usually try cases based on the charge they believe they can convince a grand jury of, but in the Wilson case, jurors will have the option of choosing what they think, if anything, Wilson should be charged with. While it is known that Brown is dead and that Wilson was his shooter, the grand jury will weigh the circumstances of the shooting to determine criminal wrongdoing.
For first-degree murder, the grand jury would have to conclude that Wilson knowingly caused Brown’s death “after deliberation on the matter,” meaning the act was the kind of thought a person would give to an important thing in their life. For second-degree murder, Wilson would’ve shot Brown “for the purpose of causing serious physical injury to another person.”
Voluntary manslaughter involves killing a person under the influence of sudden passion arising from adequate cause. An example would be if a person is being assaulted by someone and so they start fighting back and the person they’re fighting is now on the ground and not fighting back anymore but they kick the person to death. Involuntary manslaughter is similar, but instead of under a sudden fit of passion, the person recklessly causes the death of another, i.e., drinking and driving.
Wilson has been on paid administrative leave from the Ferguson Police Department since August. His whereabouts are unknown.
If he is indicted, the grand jury’s decision will be brought to a judge. A warrant for Wilson’s arrest will be issued and his lawyer will be notified to arrange for Wilson’s surrender. At that time, Wilson would likely surrender and a judge would consider bond in his case. If he were to post bond, he would be free while awaiting trial.
If Wilson is not indicted, the case ends. McCullouch has said that he will release everything the grand jury heard if there is no indictment, but that the names of witnesses will be redacted. If there is an indictment, the prosecution will not release very much information because that could prejudice the case ahead of a trial.
There is a widespread fear in the community that the violence in the weeks after Brown’s death and clashes with police could return or worsen. Local businesses have boarded their windows to protect against looters, and gun sales have skyrocketed.
The already high tensions in St. Louis have escalated in anticipation of the indictment announcement. Some say this is because the strained relationship between Brown sympathizers and law enforcement was further agitated in recent days, after Gov. Jay Nixon criticized some protesters, activated the National Guard and declared a state of emergency in Missouri — all before knowing the grand jury’s intent.
Nixon has said the National Guard’s mission is to ensure safety and allow for peaceful protests, but the move angered some as provocative. Brown’s parents and others have urged calm in the wake of the indictment decision, regardless of the outcome, and local leaders have worked with law enforcement on peacekeeping efforts.
Activists are also mobilizing for an immediate response to the indictment decision, with planned actions in cities across the country and the St. Louis area.