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The St. Louis County Prosecutor Implicitly Conceded the Need for a Trial

Cristina Fletes-Boutte-Pool/Getty Images

Here is the irony of St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s announcement Monday night that a grand jury had declined to indict officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown: The entire presentation implicitly conceded the need for a trial.

McCulloch was at pains to persuade the public that the grand jury had extensively weighed all the available evidence, and that it pointed to the conclusion that Wilson had not committed a crime. He talked about witnesses who changed their stories once they were presented with knowable facts that contradicted their original claims. He discussed the forensic evidence suggesting that Wilson’s initial shots against Brown occurred during a struggle in or near Wilson’s police S.U.V., and that Wilson only began firing the shots that killed Brown after Brown, who’d initially fled, began moving toward him again. He talked about the lack of agreement over the position of Brown’s hands when Wilson fired the fatal barrage of shots.*

So far as I know, McCulloch was under no obligation to discuss this evidence publicly. Nor was he under any obligation to release the evidence into the public domain following his remarks, as he repeatedly pledged to do. He presumably did these things to assure us that the decision not to prosecute Wilson was arrived at fairly and justly.

The problem with this is that we already have a forum for establishing the underlying facts of a case—and, no less important, for convincing the public that justice is being served in a particular case. It’s called a trial. It, rather than the post-grand jury press conference, is where lawyers typically introduce mounds of evidence to the public, litigate arguments extensively, and generally establish whether or not someone is guilty of a crime. By contrast, as others have pointed out, the point of a grand jury isn’t to determine beyond a shadow of a doubt what actually happened. It’s to determine whether there’s probable cause for an indictment, which requires a significantly lower standard of proof. That McCulloch appeared to turn the grand jury into an exercise in sorting out the former rather than the latter suggested he wanted no part of a trial.*

And, in fairness, it would have been extremely difficult to convict Wilson in a trial. But that’s a separate question from whether or not the verdict would be seen as legitimate after the fact. If McCullough was truly as concerned as he suggested tonight that the public accept the process that’s allowed Darren Wilson to walk away a free man, he had an obvious way to help ensure that this would happen. That he chose to avoid it demonstrates a rather appalling level of cynicism. 

UPDATE: Some readers have argued that it would have been unethical for McCulloch to go to trial with a case he didn't believe in. Two points in response: 1. Well, he went to the grand jury with a case he didn't believe in, and it's pretty unusual for that to happen, too. Clearly, the reason he did that was to make the process of letting Wilson off the hook look fair--again, not the typical purpose of grand juries, which are about establishing probable cause for an indictment. My point is that there's a much better venue for establishing the fairness of the process (and for nailing down what actually happened)--a trial. Conversely, if this were simply about assessing probable cause, then the platonically correct move would have been to avoid a grand jury altogether, since McCulloch clearly didn't think it exists. 2. Yes, it would have been hard to convict Wilson. But that doesn't mean there wasn't a case to be built. That McCulloch didn't believe in the case says as much about him and his biases as it does the underlying facts. A different prosecutor could have easily come down differently. 

UPDATE II: I elaborate more on this theme in this follow-up piece

*These paragraphs were slightly tweaked for precision after publication. The first paragraph initially included one clear factual mistake--that Wilson had driven a police cruiser rather than an S.U.V.