FERGUSON, Mo. – Conditions calmed this week in Ferguson after nights of sometimes violent unrest stemming from the fatal shooting of a black 18-year-old by a white police officer.
But a delicate and crucial question lingers: What happens if the grand jury now considering the case doesn’t return a charge against the officer?
This officer has to be indicted. I’d hate to see what happens if he isn’t. The rioting, the looting, man, ... said resident Larry Loveless, 29, as he stopped at the memorial for Brown where he was killed.
But prosecutors must avoid considering the potential reaction – even a violent one – on whether to file charges in any case, said Paul Cassell, a former federal judge who is a University of Utah law professor. He said they must make a dispassionate judgment uninfluenced by public opinion.
The most likely state charges that will be considered in such a case include second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter, Cassell said.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill told The Associated Press she’s pushing for federal and local investigations to be completed around the same time so that all evidence in the case can be made public – a step many consider important if prosecutors decide not to charge the officer.
McCaskill, a former prosecutor in Missouri, said she hopes the physical evidence in the case – including blood spatter patterns, clothing and shell casings – will provide incontrovertible facts about what happened during the shooting.
What we want to avoid is a decision being made without all the information being available to the public also, McCaskill said.
Obviously all of us are concerned not just about that this process be fair, but what does this next six months look like? she said.
But finishing both investigations simultaneously would be unusual because federal investigators typically work independently of their state counterparts and at their own pace, Cassell said.
That is one of the advantages of a federal investigation. They tend to have a little more distance from the police officers who are being investigated. That provides some assurance of objectivity, he said.
Gov. Jay Nixon, in an interview Friday with The Associated Press, didn’t say whether he agreed with McCaskill’s call to conclude both investigations at the same time. He said the full focus is on seeking justice.
To me, it’s one you’ve got to get right. Just got to get it right, he said.
St. Louis County prosecutors this week convened a grand jury to begin hearing evidence in the case, despite concerns among some in the community – including Brown’s parents – that the office would not be impartial because of District Attorney Bob McCulloch’s ties to law enforcement.
McCulloch’s father, mother and other relatives worked for St. Louis police, and his father was killed while responding to a call involving a black suspect. He has said he will not remove himself from the case.
Considering the racial tensions of the case, even the makeup of the grand jury was being closely scrutinized. Two black women and one black man are on the 12-member panel, along with six white men and three white women, said Paul Fox, director of judicial administration for St. Louis County Circuit Court.
The Brown family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, said the panel works perfectly as long as the prosecutor presents the necessary evidence and doesn’t withhold information.
But he said the family doesn’t believe the grand jury was necessary, arguing that the prosecutor had sufficient grounds to charge the officer on his own.