The grand jury verdict Monday night that exonerated the Ferguson, Mo., police officer who shot Michael Brown re-ignites an important debate about how racism and criminal justice intersect.
What to think of the verdict is richly variable. But how to think of the verdict does have some right and wrong answers. Here are the most important things to keep in mind.
Police use of deadly force
Almost all deadly force is viscerally abhorrent, even more so when a white officer kills a young black person. But the law says police can sometimes rightly use deadly force. This sets up a raucous clash between our emotional and rational selves, where making sense of such events both legally and humanely may be impossible. Juries applying the law must dive headlong into a deep contemplation of whether a horrible killing is legally justified: and the right answer can sometimes be yes, the inherent contradiction of a perfectly legal tragedy.
A jury decision
Juries remain our best tool to restore social peace after tragic violence. When a largish but manageable group of everyday people look at the same evidence and agree, experience teaches those decisions are likely the most common-sense available. Faith in jury verdicts, however, depends on the quality of the evidence they were given, and the laws they apply.
The Ferguson prosecutor emphasized the breadth and depth of the evidence the jury considered. Was it broad and deep enough? The evidence is being released to the public, so we can consider that question in depth soon enough. Comprehensive evidence that supports the jury's verdict is the gold standard of legal correctness.
Conflict in the evidence
Different witnesses saw the same events differently. This is normal. People are not video cameras. The wrong approach to such inevitable conflicts in the evidence is seizing myopically on whatever bits confirm your biases. The right approach is to consider all the evidence and see what overall narrative emerges most clearly.
The law the jury applied
Laws on police use of force must walk a fine balance. Officers must be free to make tough, quick decisions to preserve life and public safety, but they must not be free to brutalize the public they serve. Every good law on police use of force walks that balance by focusing on the reasonableness of the officer's actions in the context in which he or she acted, and limiting second–guessing.
Media has it tough
Forget TV courtroom dramas. Criminal proceedings are boring; dust-dry, extended dissections of reams of evidence, over-layed with deliberative excess. The sheer tedium makes lay observers wish to stick pins in their eyeballs. The media, however, must report responsibly on trials in catchy 30 second TV hits, or 200 word dispatches: a Herculean journalistic task. The most conscientious media report on a complex case will inevitably have little of the depth or nuance of the original. So what the public thinks of a case based on media snippets, and what the jury thinks based on dense courtroom proceedings, can differ dramatically. Did such disjunctive perceptions innocently arise here?
The standard of proof
This jury did not apply the high traditional standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury only had to find "probable cause" an offence was committed for a prosecution to go forward. But the jury said the evidence did not even clear that low bar. This suggests the case against the police officer was weaker than many believed, or wanted to believe.
No defence lawyer
Believe it or not, in grand jury proceedings (long since abolished in Canada) defence lawyers are excluded. The officer's lawyer could not advance his client's cause before the jury. He could only sit outside the courtroom and worry. Yet still the jury decided in the officer's favour.
The Ferguson grand jury hearing was in secret. That is so 15th century. Public education about the evidence as it unfolded in court could have done a world of good.
Law and life are different
Legal conclusions flow from microscopic dissection of very tiny slices of life: In this case, a few brief minutes of interaction between a police officer and a young man. Larger questions around the prevalence and role of racism in policing, racism in Ferguson, and racism in the United States, were not part of the jury's work. But we can understand things quite differently if we trade the legal microscope for the social telescope, lift our eyes up from the courtroom, and scan the horizon and skies. So whatever you think of it, the Ferguson jury's verdict is not the definitive answer to what happened: it is only one answer.