Why Grand Juries Don’t Indict Cops when they Kill

Why Grand Juries Don't Indict Cops when they Kill

Why Grand Juries Don’t Indict Cops when they Kill

The grand juries that decided not to indict officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo are part of a system enshrined in the Constitution. The framers considered the grand jury an important check on government power.

But now there is growing criticism that government prosecutors can hijack the system to get results they want.

“The system is under the complete control, under the thumb, of prosecutors,” said the Cato Institute’s Timothy Lynch, who co-authored a 2003 scathing analysis: “A Grand Façade: How the Grand Jury was Captured by Government.”

“If they want an indictment they are going to get an indictment,” he told me. “If they don’t want an indictment it won’t happen.”

A grand jury is significantly different from a regular jury in a trial. It meets in secret — to protect those who may not be charged; prosecutors dictate what evidence and witnesses the jury sees. There’s generally no judge or defense attorney.

Why grand jury indictments in police shootings are so rare
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Grand Jury System, With Exceptions, Favors the Police in Fatalities
I Told a Grand Jury I Saw a Cop Shoot and Kill an Unarmed Man. It Didn’t Indict.
Why the System Won’t Indict Cops for Killing Black Men

How to police the police is a question as old as civilization, now given special urgency by a St. Louis County grand jury’s return of a “no bill” of indictment for Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in his fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown. The result is shocking to many, depressingly predictable to more than a few.

Can the cops be controlled? It’s never been easy: according to one old sociological chestnut, the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence is what defines modern government, and this monopoly is jealously protected against the second-guessing of puny civilians. All over the country, the issue of restraining police power is framed around the retribution against individual cops, from Staten Island to Milwaukee to Los Angeles. But is this the best way to impose discipline on law enforcement and roll back what even Republican appellate court appointees are calling rampant criminalization?

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about these police killings, many of them of unarmed victims, is that our courts find them perfectly legal.

“Objectively reasonable”—what could be wrong with that? But in actual courtroom practice, “objective reasonableness” has become nearly impossible to tell apart from the subjective snap judgments of panic-fueled police officers. American courts universally defer to the law enforcement officer’s own personal assessment of the threat at the time.

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