Grand juror from Ferguson cases sues prosecutor to speak out

People take part in a march against police violence, in New York December 13, 2014. (Reuters)
​A member of the grand jury that declined to indict former police officer Darren Wilson over the August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown is back in court, this time to try and win the right to speak publically about those proceedings.

On Monday this week, attorneys for an individual named only as “Grand Juror Doe” filed a lawsuit alleging that St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch mischaracterized the case against Wilson, a former officer with the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department, and presented evidence to the jury in a manner inconsistent with how such investigations are normally conducted.

“From Plaintiff’s perspective, the presentation of evidence to the grand jury investigating Wilson differed markedly and in significant ways from how evidence was presented in the hundreds of matters presented to the grand jury earlier in its term,” the complaint reads in part.

The grand jury decided on November 24 not to charge Wilson with any crimes related to the August 9 incident in which he admittedly fired several shots at Brown, an unarmed black teen, fatally injuring him. The killing prompted nationwide protests throughout the summer that were rekindled in the autumn when Wilson, who has since resigned from the force, was cleared by the jury.

Grand jurors are typically barred for life from discussing cases, but attorneys for the plaintiff argue that their client should be allowed to speak in the name of transparency about what happened last year when McCulloch presented the jury with thousands of pages worth of evidence while they weighed Wilson’s fate.

"The Supreme Court has said that grand jury secrecy must be weighed against the juror's First Amendment rights on a case-by-case basis," Tony Rothert, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and a representative for the plaintiff, told KSDK-TV on Monday. "The rules of secrecy must yield because this is a highly unusual circumstance. The First Amendment prevents the state from imposing a life-time gag order in cases where the prosecuting attorney has purported to be transparent."

According to the complaint, “From Plaintiff’s perspective, the investigation of Wilson had a stronger focus on the victim than in other cases presented to the grand jury,” and that “the presentation of the law to which the grand jurors were to apply the facts was made in a muddled and untimely manner compared to the presentation of the law in other cases presented to the grand jury.”

“In Plaintiff’s view, the current information available about the grand jurors’ views is not entirely accurate—especially the implication that all grand jurors believed that there was no support for any charges. Moreover, the public characterization of the grand jurors’ view of witnesses and evidence does not accord with Plaintiff’s own,” the lawsuit says. “Plaintiff also wishes to express opinions about: whether the release of records has truly provided transparency; Plaintiff’s impression that evidence was presented differently than in other cases, with the insinuation that Brown, not Wilson, was the wrongdoer; and questions about whether the grand jury was clearly counseled on the law.”

State law sees to it that grand jurors are prohibited under penalty from disclosing any evidence given or the names of witnesses, St. Louis Public Radio’s Chris McDaniel wrote early Monday, but lawyers at the ACLU say US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri should authorize an injunction so the juror can speak.

McCulloch, the prosecutor, has spoken publically about the grand jury proceedings in the wake of the November decision, and released a trove of documents presented to the jurors ahead of their deliberation. The ACLU says such efforts fall sort of fully explaining how the process actually adhered, however, and that more information must be made known.

“From Plaintiff’s perspective, although the release of a large number of records provides an appearance of transparency, with heavy redactions and the absence of context, those records do not fully portray the proceedings before the grand jury,” the complaint reads in part.

“Plaintiff would like to speak about the experience of being a grand juror, including expressing Plaintiff’s opinions about the evidence and the investigation, and believes Plaintiff’s experience could contribute to the current public dialogue concerning race relations. In Plaintiff’s view, the current information available about the grand jurors’ views is not entirely accurate—especially the implication that all grand jurors believed that there was no support for any charges. Moreover, the public characterization of the grand jurors’ view of witnesses and evidence does not accord with Plaintiff’s own. Plaintiff also wishes to express opinions about: whether the release of records has truly provided transparency; Plaintiff’s impression that evidence was presented differently than in other cases, with the insinuation that Brown, not Wilson, was the wrongdoer; and questions about whether the grand jury was clearly counseled on the law.”

Elsewhere in the US, meanwhile, a judge in Staten Island, New York said Monday that he’ll host a hearing later this month to decide if evidence presented to a grand jury there relating to a similar incident should be made public. At hand in there is what to do with the evidence shown to a grand jury last year in the case surrounding a New York Police Department officer, Daniel Pantaleo, and a man killed by the cop, Erin Garner, after being placed in a chokehold. Last month, a secret grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo, prompting further anti-police brutality demonstrations across the country.