Some Thoughts on the Ferguson Verdict
In August of 2014 police officer Darren Wilson shot the unarmed Michael Brown to death. On November 24, 2014 a grand jury in Missouri failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson. Like most Americans, I have some thoughts about this matter.
In the United States, a grand jury’s function is to determine whether or not there is probable cause to prosecute. This level of proof is much lower than that of a criminal trial—such a trial requires (in theory) proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Unlike in a criminal trial, the grand jury is effectively run by the prosecutor and the defense has no real role in the process. As might be suspected, grand juries almost always indict. Almost always, that is, unless the person under consideration is a police officer who has killed someone. In such cases the officer is almost never indicted. As such, the decision in the Wilson case is exactly what should have been expected.
Now, it might be that the reason that police officers are almost never indicted for killing is that nearly all the killings are justified. In contrast, the reason that non-officers are almost always indicted is that there is almost always legitimate probable cause. This is, obviously enough, not impossible.
Of course, the real concern here is not with the grand juries in general, but with this grand jury in particular. According to the various news reports and experts, Wilson received a “gold plated” grand jury in terms of how it was handled by the prosecutor and the state. To be specific, the grand jury seemed to be run in such a way that Wilson received exceptionally good treatment in regards to the case. This is in contrast with the sort of grand jury treatment other citizens typically get, which have been described as “tin plated.” In these grand juries an indictment is almost a forgone conclusion. This is not to say that Wilson’s grand jury involved corruption or misdeeds. Rather, the point is that there is a stark contrast between the sort of grand jury that a typical citizen will receive and the one that Wilson received.
This distinction in treatment is one reason that people are justifiably angry about the matter. After all, a proper justice system would treat everyone equally—everyone would get the “gold plated” grand jury (or the “tin plated” one) rather than getting the sort of justice deemed fit for the person’s race, class, or profession. This sort of disparity is yet one more example of the injustices of our justice system.
Naturally, I am well aware that the real does not (and probably cannot) match the ideal. However, this sort of appeal to the real is more of an acceptance of the problem than a refutation of criticisms of the problem. Also, I do not expect a perfect system—merely a reasonably fair one.
In addition to the nature of the grand jury, there is also obviously the central issue: was Wilson justified in shooting Brown to death? In this case, the justification is grounded on the principle of defense of life: an officer is justified in using violence to protect his life or that of an innocent person when he has an “objectively reasonable” belief that there is such a threat. In Wilson’s case, the shooting of Brown would be warranted if Wilson had an “objectively reasonable” belief that Brown presented such a threat. Since the justification is based on the reasonable belief in a threat, the warrant for the use of force ends when the threat ends.
According to the information released to the public, there is evidence that Brown had close contact with Wilson, which is consistent with Wilson’s claim that Brown attacked him and tried to take his gun. Brown died a considerable distance from Wilson and this raises the legal and moral question of whether or not Wilson still had an “objectively reasonable” belief that Brown still presented a threat that could only be dealt with by lethal force. The grand jury decided that he did, which settles the legal aspect of the case. However, there is still the matter of the moral aspect—was Wilson actually warranted in killing Brown?
On the one hand, when one considers that Brown was unarmed and too far from Wilson to attack him, then it would be reasonable to consider that Wilson was not justified in killing Brown. On the other hand, if Brown appeared to be charging towards Wilson, then Wilson could be justified in shooting him. Since Wilson was not shot in the back, it does seem clear that Brown was facing Wilson—but facing someone is not the same thing as being a threat. Unfortunately, there is no video of the incident and the eye-witness reports conflict (and eye-witness reports, even given in all honesty, are not very reliable). Since Brown is dead, we only have Wilson’s side of the story. As such, one cannot be certain whether Wilson was justified or not, assuming a right to kill when one has an “objectively reasonable” belief that one is threatened.
This principle can, of course, be challenged. Some people take the principle to set a very low threshold—an officer just has to feel threatened in order to be warranted to use deadly force. This, as might be imagined, can be seen as a threshold that is too low. Some states do give citizens the same right (against other citizens) as shown in the various infamous stand your ground laws and these have proven rather problematic. Others take the view that the principle itself is reasonable—after all, it essentially expresses John Locke’s principle that force can be used to protect one’s life or the lives of the innocent. But, even if the principle is reasonable, there is also the question of whether or not it is applied correctly. My view is that the use of lethal force requires a comparable threat to justify it, on the principle of a proportional response. That said, one must also consider the practicalities of combat situations—it can be difficult to judge intent and the heat of a fight can easily change a person’s perceptions.
As one final point, even if Wilson was justified in shooting Brown, the perception remains that the police and the justice system treat black Americans very different from white Americans. Not surprisingly, some white people doubt this and do so in all honesty—they are assessing the system from their experiences and assume that everyone else has the same sort of experiences as they do. However, one must look beyond one’s experiences and consider those of others. While no one can completely get the experience and being of another, it would be a good thing for white folks to give some thought to what it is like to be non-white in America.