Legally Speaking: How a grand jury works, and what happened in Ferguson
Monday St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced a
grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri did not find that police officer Darren Wilson
should be charged with a crime in the killing of Michael Brown.
McCulloch explained this was the result of a
grand jury proceeding that started in August and included
over 70 hours of courtroom time, over 60 witnesses and a large amount of
Both before and after announcing the decision, he highlighted
different statements made by witnesses and the forensic evidence in an
attempt to explain or justify the grand jury’s decision.
I’m not going to go over the moral or racial ramifications of this
decision, as I believe that is best left up to each individual. However, I am going to attempt to explain some of the legal concepts involved using Arizona as an example.
First, a grand jury is much like a regular jury except that the
proceedings are closed to the public.
“A grand jury is 12 to 16 citizens who have qualified for jury service
in the county. They usually are subject to being called into session for
a period of not more than 120 days.”
Here in Arizona we have both county and state grand juries. In Arizona
a criminal case can start by a police officer issuing a citation, or by
the prosecuting attorney filing a complaint in court, or by the
prosecuting agency presenting a case to the grand jury. Most cases get
into the system by a citation or a complaint but the grand jury is being
utilized more and more, especially in Maricopa County.
During a grand jury presentation the prosecution presents evidence and
testimony to prove to the jurors a crime was committed and a
particular defendant committed the crime.
The standard is “probable
cause” and is much lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.
Essentially, probable cause is more than just a hunch or a feeling, it
must be supported by “reason based upon known facts.” As you can see,
it is a far cry from beyond a reasonable doubt.
After the presentation of the evidence the jury deliberates and either
returns a criminal indictment (aka “true bill”) or not. The criminal
indictment formally accuses someone of a crime. At least 9 of the 12
jurors have to agree. A grand jury’s job is not to determine if a
defendant is guilty. Their job is simply to determine whether there is
enough evidence to support that a crime was committed and that the
defendant committed the crime.
Now let me address the grand jury that heard the officer Wilson
matter in Ferguson. The 12 jurors were composed of 12 people selected at
random from a fair cross-section of the citizens. There were six white
men, three white women, two black women and one black man.
The term was for four months and technically expired in September
but they had to stay and finish this case since it was started during
These jurors decided that no charges should be filed against the
officer. That means that at least 9 of the jurors believed there was not
enough evidence supported by reason and facts to charge first degree
murder, second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter or involuntary
manslaughter. We will never know the split of the jurors, meaning, how
many were for or against charges, because the law in that jurisdiction
dictates that it is a violation to ask and for the jury to divulge that
This was, and continues to be, a very polarizing case that has captured
the attention of our country. Many can’t believe this grand jury came
to the conclusion it did and will continue to ask why and how.
Although we will never know what happened inside the deliberation room,
at least you can now say that you know a little about the basics of the
grand jury system.