On Monday, the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri chose not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. Although grand jury deliberations are sealed, it is believed that contradictory testimony from a variety of witnesses to the shooting played a role in the grand jury’s decision.
After three months of deliberations during which Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch presented the group of twelve with evidence surrounding the case, the grand jury did not reach the nine votes in favor of an indictment for the indictment to go through. Indictments are usually decided by the prosecutor’s office, but in some cases the prosecutor may choose to call a grand jury to make the decision.
In those instances at least nine of the twelve jurors must find that there is “probable cause” to believe Wilson committed a crime. If indicted, a criminal case would have been filed and jurors in a criminal court would have had to determine whether there was proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a crime was committed.
Probable cause is a fairly low standard—the famous quip is that a grand jury could “indict a ham sandwich.” FiveThirtyEight reports that out of 162,000 federal cases prosecuted in 2010, grand juries indicted all but 11 of them, but adds that indictments of police officers are very rare.
McCulloch’s actions have also become a topic of hot debate. The prosecutor’s decision to use a grand jury in the first place has come under fire, as has the format of the grand jury. Unlike most such hearings in which only a few witnesses are called and the prosecutor then makes the case for an indictment, McCulloch allowed all known witnesses and Wilson himself to speak and did not recommend an indictment. The New York Times called the hearing an “unusual process.”
Officer Wilson resigned this weekend. In his resignation letter, he explained that his decision was prompted by concerns that “continued employment may put the residents and police officers of the city of Ferguson at risk.” He added, “It is my hope that my resignation will allow the community to heal.”