The Price of Justice and a Ham Sandwich in Ferguson, Missouri
It’s a commonplace in the criminal justice system that a competent prosecutor can indict even a ham sandwich. While that may be true, and St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch is by reputation competent, Officer Darren Wilson, who shot Michael Brown to death on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri a few weeks ago, is hardly a ham sandwich.
A police officer who kills in the line of duty almost always has public opinion and the investigating authorities on his side. A police officer represents the thin blue line between criminals and the rest of us, and takes risks on our behalf every day. Defining an officer’s error as criminal is as difficult as prosecuting tasks get and complicated further when the prosecutor knows that other officers will view even a prosecution – let alone a conviction – as a betrayal.
McCulloch, the elected County Prosecutor responsible for this case, has more on his plate than just making sure justice is served for Wilson, Brown and their respective families. The public trust in the justice system is at stake and events since the Brown homicide show that there is very little of that trust in the majority black community being policed by Ferguson’s virtually all-white police force.
While McCulloch may be competent and may be able to hold the scales of justice true here, there is ample reason to question whether he is the right person for the task because justice, as Felix Frankfurter famously wrote, “must satisfy the appearance of justice.”
McCulloch’s St. Louis police officer father was killed by a black suspect while responding to a call back in 1964. According to CNN, McCulloch’s mother, brother, an uncle and a cousin worked for the same department. McCulloch was caught by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch publicly misrepresenting grand jury testimony in a homicide by police case from 2001, a case cited by State Senator Jamilah Nasheed, who has led a citizen’s petition to have McCulloch removed from the Brown homicide case.
McCulloch’s critics also claim he has never prosecuted a police officer for excessive use of force. That is a difficult thing to prove, but not a difficult thing to believe, and the black community of Ferguson, with a long list of grievances regarding their mistreatment under the whip of the local law, believes it. They also know that they are consistently the subjects of police harassment and lawlessness, up to and including homicide.
Note that “homicide” does not denote a crime, but simply that one human being caused the death of another. (The death certificate in a lawful execution by the state reads “homicide.”)
McCulloch’s office began presenting evidence on the Michael Brown case to a grand jury on August 20, and that presentation is expected to last until October, when the question the grand jurors must answer will be whether there is probable cause to believe that Brown’s homicide by Darren Wilson was criminal in nature.
None of us know what that grand jury has heard and will hear, but the people who have been in the streets of Ferguson every night since Brown’s death have heard from at least three eyewitnesses that Brown, 18, was shot at least six times from a distance. They believe Brown had his hands up when he was killed, a belief reflected in the chant that has been the hallmark of the Ferguson demonstrations, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”
Brown’s family released the results of an autopsy they arranged, which verified that there were at least six shots fired, because Michael Brown was hit with six bullets, from a distance that left no gunpowder residue or stippling on his body. The only finding in this autopsy that might conflict with those eyewitness accounts was an entry wound on Brown’s right bicep, which would have been on his triceps if his hands had been raised.
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