Ferguson Shooting Grand Jury Proceeds Under Secrecy Veil

olice arrest a demonstrator protesting the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown outside the police station on November 20, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Secrecy surrounds almost every aspect of the grand jury deciding whether a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson should be charged with a crime for fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has mobilized National Guard troops to support local law enforcement agencies if there is unrest after the decision, which could come as early as today.

The panel of nine whites and three blacks has been reviewing evidence since Aug. 20, 11 days after officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, 18, in a street encounter.

Some eyewitnesses said Brown was shot while raising his hands in surrender. Police said he attacked Wilson while the officer was in his patrol car. The killing touched off street protests, some of them violent in the days after the shooting. Demonstrations have reignited as the grand jury’s determination draws near.

The office of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch hasn’t divulged when or where the grand jury meets or when its work will be done, offering only the estimate its decision will be made in mid- to late-November.

St. Louis County doesn’t include the city of the same name. Grand jurors have been meeting in suburban Clayton, the county seat.

Identities of the grand jurors, seven of whom are male and five female, will be kept secret. At least nine of them will have to agree to a charge to return an indictment.

Jury’s Vote

When a decision is reached, the actual vote won’t be disclosed, only whether the jurors voted for an indictment or for what’s known as a no-true bill. State law prohibits disclosure of the vote.

Panel members are prohibited by law from disclosing anything they saw or heard in the proceeding, or expressing an opinion about them, said Paul Fox, director of judicial administration for St. Louis County.

Violating that secrecy would put a juror in contempt of court with a penalty to be determined by a judge, said Edward Magee, a spokesman for McCulloch. Magee said he’s unaware of any such prosecutions in his 19 years in the prosecutor’s office.

The only significant disclosure from the current proceedings has been a description of Wilson’s four hours of testimony before the grand jury that was reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper.

If there is an indictment, it will require the approval of Circuit Judge Carolyn Whittington, who is overseeing the grand jury operations.

The case would then go to Presiding Judge Maura McShane, who will schedule an arraignment. From there, it would be assigned randomly to a circuit judge in the court’s criminal division.

McCulloch has already decided that barring the discovery of additional relevant evidence, he will not bring charges or resubmit the case to a grand jury if Wilson isn’t indicted, Magee has said.