A Grand Jury Indictment Is Extremely Common

And yet Michael Brown's killer will not go to trial. 

"A riot is the language of the unheard." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Last night a grand jury in St. Louis, Missouri, voted not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown on August 9th of this year. This may not seem like a big deal to you - or you might think it's an unfair but reasonably common occurrence. But here's what you need to know, courtesy of Nate Silver's statistical analysis blog FiveThirtyEight:

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

That's right - grand juries elect not to indict only one case out of nearly 15,000 brought to them. The fact that this one case out of fifteen thousand involves a white police officer shooting an unarmed black teenager is significant. 

Or maybe it isn't.

Cases involving police shootings, however, appear to be an exception. As my colleague Reuben Fischer-Baum has written, we don’t have good data on officer-involved killings. But newspaper accounts suggest, grand juries frequently decline to indict law-enforcement officials. A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that “police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings” in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment. Separate research by Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson has found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings, although it didn’t look at grand jury indictments specifically.

Justice was unlikely in the case of Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. This is a world where hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised to support the man who shot to death an 18-year-old boy and left his body in the street. But that Darren Wilson won't even go to trial - that we won't even get the rote, mechanical illusion of justice - demonstrates precisely what black lives are worth to our judicial system. 

Stop calling the protests in Ferguson "riots." These are the protests of those who have gone unheard, who deserve justice and receive tear gas. These are the protests of people who know that what happened to Michael Brown - and Trayvon Martin, and Oscar Grant, and Amadou Diallo, and Sean Bell, and Kendrec McDade, and so many others - will happen again and again, and that no one will be brought to justice for the killing of their sons, fathers, husbands, brothers, friends. 

Black lives matter. The people of Ferguson deserve to be heard. Hear them. 

Read the statement from Michael Brown's family, and follow the fight to require all police officers to use body-worn cameras. 

Ferguson schools are closed today, but the library remains open. Donate to the Ferguson Public Library here

Antonio French is an alderman of the 21st Ward in St. Louis and has been on the ground reporting in Ferguson since August 9. Follow him here, and donate to his educational community for low-income Missouri students here

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