FERGUSON, Mo. – Conditions calmed this week in Ferguson after nights of sometimes violent unrest over the fatal shooting of a black 18-year-old by a white police officer. But a crucial question lingers: What happens if the grand jury now considering the case doesn’t return a charge against the officer?
The fear among some residents and officials trying to maintain peace is that failure to charge the officer could stoke new anger among a community profoundly mistrustful of the legal system.
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. Her office said Friday that the Department of Justice hasn’t given a timeline for the federal investigation, which centres on whether a civil rights violation occurred when officer Darren Wilson fatally shot the unarmed Michael Brown on Aug. 9.
McCaskill said she’s hopeful the physical evidence in the case — including blood spatter patterns, clothing and shell casings — will provide “incontrovertible facts” about what happened during the shooting. She said whatever local prosecutors decide, it will be important to explain the decision by providing that physical evidence, and that won’t be possible if the federal investigation is ongoing.
McCaskill said she urged Attorney General Eric Holder during a meeting earlier this week to speed up what is typically a lengthier federal process.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, in an interview Friday with the AP, didn’t say if 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.
On Friday, the streets of Ferguson were calm for a third night as a small stream of protesters marched but also talked with police about their concerns over the shooting and police tactics.
Many residents, eager to end the disruptions to their lives caused by protests and police presence, say they fear the community’s anger will explode anew if Wilson isn’t charged.
“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.
Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who has been in charge of keeping watch over the protests in Ferguson, declined to say whether he is concerned about the potential response should no indictment be returned.
“I really don’t deal in what ifs,” Johnson said. “If I were going to put negative what ifs on this community, that’s not fair, and it becomes a matter of pre-judging.”
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.
Finishing both the federal and local investigations simultaneously would be unusual because federal investigators typically work independently of their state counterparts and at their own pace, said Paul Cassell, a former federal judge who is a University of Utah law professor.
“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.
The most likely state charges that will be considered in such a case include second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter, he said.
Associated Press writer Ryan J. Foley contributed from Ferguson.