How Just Is Our Legal System?November 25, 2014
Last night, St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that the grand jury assigned to review the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown had declined to bring criminal charges against police officer Darren Wilson, the man who killed him. There’s plenty to criticize about prosecutor McCulloch’s handling of this heartbreaking situation. His choice to take Michael Brown’s shooting through the secret grand jury process, rather than to a public preliminary hearing, is questionable at best. It appears from news reports that Mr. McCulloch may have abdicated his responsibility to present a coherent case, dumping a haystack of conflicting evidence in front of the grand jurors and leaving them to sort through it for the possible “needle” of probable cause. I wonder if the grand jury even understood that its job was not to rule on Officer Wilson’s guilt, but simply to decide whether to send him to trial for any of several crimes ranging from illegal discharge of a firearm all the way up to first-degree murder. There’s a lot of law involved in making that decision, not something that, in my opinion, one could reasonably expect lay people to sift through without legal advice. Former New York State Chief Judge Sol Wachtler once remarked that a prosecutor could easily persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” That this grand jury failed to issue an indictment against a police officer who reportedly shot twelve times at an unarmed teenager makes me question whether Mr. McCulloch made even the slightest effort to get one.
Worst, however, was Mr. McCulloch’s performance at the podium last night. Perhaps he thought he was just being matter-of-fact, but I found him to be condescending and dismissive. Those of us who see the shooting of Michael Brown as a tragedy born of institutional racism weren’t “disappointed” by the grand jury’s decision – we were outraged. Mr. McCulloch’s dismissal of that outrage was profoundly offensive.
As the protests began in Ferguson and across the country last night, President Obama made a plea for calm, pointing out that “we are a nation built on the rule of law.” He’s right, and the rule of law is rightly the foundation on which our society rests. But neither President Obama nor Mr. McCulloch seems willing to admit that our legal system is predisposed to uphold the status quo, however unjust it might be. Courts look to precedent – decisions made by judges of the past – to resolve problems. When those past decisions were based on bigoted beliefs, they can only inspire unjust results.
Like it or not, the status quo in this country is riddled with racism, and it makes young people of color walking targets for violence. We saw it with Trayvon Martin, we’re seeing it with Michael Brown, and I’ll predict right now that, as the facts emerge, we’re going to see that racism was a factor in the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot by two Cleveland police officers who feared that the toy gun the boy held was real.
I’m not looking to crucify Officer Wilson, who may well have shot Michael Brown in genuine fear for his own life. But I think that we, as a supposedly civil society, can no longer afford to overlook the racism that permeates our culture and corrupts so many of our institutions. Yes, it’ll take time, effort and money to generate real change. It’s well worth the investment, however, to make sure that our legal system gives every citizen equal access to justice. Michael Brown deserved better. So do his parents, and so do we all.
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