The Ferguson Grand Jury and the Coercive State

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Juxtaposed images of Mike Brown and Darren Wilson

There are so many obvious things to say about the grand jury investigating the Michael Brown shooting that I was reluctant to write this piece because they are so egregiously apparent. But in the past few days I have been stunned by the amount of confusion among friends for whom I have respect. That confusion was created by the media, the police and the prosecutor. So I am compelled to make a few observations from the Grand Jury report itself.

First, this was without doubt the strangest presentation of evidence by a prosecutor in the history of grand juries. It is the prosecutor’s responsibility to present the evidence which demonstrates probable cause that a crime was committed, not to present the evidence for the defense nor to prove guilt. In this case the prosecutor:

  1. Allowed the person being investigated to testify, although he did not ask him relevant questions about whether Michael Brown was running away or had his hands up when he shot. He allowed Darren Wilson to comment at great length about his personal fear of large, African American males and asked him leading question after leading question, apparently fearing he would get his story wrong.
  2. Presented contradictory eyewitness testimony. Some might think that fair until you read the grand jury report. He failed to ask relevant questions almost half of the time and he presented evidence from two witnesses who he knew were lying (see below).
  3. He did not present relevant forensic and medical evidence and failed to point out egregious violations of police procedure.

Let me be clear about that last point. The police investigation was a farce:

  1. Darren Wilson was allowed to drive himself back to the police station alone.
  2. He washed up before being photographed. It is interesting to note that on the police station surveillance video he appears to be unharmed at all. But after “washing up” a small bruise appears on the right side of his face.
  3. Darren Wilson bagged and logged in his own evidence.
  4. Police interrogation of Darren Wilson was not taped.

To say that all of these are gross violation of police practice is an understatement. But it gets worse. Wilson testified that Brown struck him while he was in his SUV and therefore he feared that he would die from the blows being administered. First of all, the hospital report cites a minor bruise on Wilson’s face. I and many of you have been punched over the years and looked much worse than the police photograph of the alleged injury. Second, if Wilson was sitting in his SUV Michael Brown would have to have been sitting on his lap to strike him on that side of his face. Third, it is possible to throw a jab through the open window of a vehicle but not a haymaker. Fourth, of those six witnesses who were asked whether Brown approached the SUV, two stated it was Wilson who grabbed him and pulled him toward the vehicle. Another five witnesses said it never happened and fourteen eyewitnesses were never asked the question by the prosecutor.

The prosecutor never pursued the issue of Wilson’s apparent lack of preparation and inept police procedure either. Wilson testified that he couldn’t find his mace. Well, where was it? It goes on his holster where every other police officer carries it. Wilson testified he forgot his Taser. Really? To say that a police officer forgot a weapon is at best an unbelievable anomaly. He was driving an SUV, a very large vehicle with a gas pedal. Are we truly to believe he was defenseless? And finally, when he did shoot he was a considerable distance from Michael Brown. Surely he learned in the police academy how to move out of danger.

The medical examiner did not even diagram or measure the crime scene because he said “I thought it was obvious what happened.” What?!? As Cyril Wecht, one the best forensic investigators in the country said, the physical evidence actually presented makes the case clearly a homicide. So it appears that what is obvious depends on whether you have the slightest idea of what you are doing.

To me the eyewitness testimony is relatively clear. I present it below.

Question Eyewitnesses answering yes Eyewitnesses answering no Eyewitnesses who did not now Eyewitnesses not asked the question by prosecutors
Was Michael Brown running away from Darren Wilson when fired upon? 15/54% 5/18% 0/0% 8/29%
Did Michael Brown put hands up when fired open? 16/57% 2/7% 3/11% 7/25%
Was Michael Brown kneeling when fired upon? 7/25% 6/21% 3/11% 12/43%
Did Michael Brown charge at police car or police officer? 6/21% 5/18% 3/11% 14/50%

There are several key points to be made from the eyewitness testimony. First it is clear that Michael Brown was moving away from Darren Wilson and had his hands up. Therefore, he posed no threat to the police officer. Second, the suggestion that Michael Brown charged the officer or his SUV is weak at best. It is actually even weaker than the numbers suggest because a careful reading of the testimony of two of the witnesses answering in the affirmative revealed that one of them wasn’t even there and another admitted that she was suffering from mental illness, had racist beliefs and often believed things that turned out not to be true. In addition, the implication of the question was that Michael Brown was attacking the officer, but two of the witnesses said the opposite, that Darren Wilson grabbed Michael Brown and pulled him to the SUV. Third it is clear that the prosecutor had no interest in determining the truth because he failed to ask relevant questions to eyewitnesses 25-50% of the time. It could be inferred that he knew their answers would not help him avoid an indictment.

The prosecutor did everything possible to avoid an indictment even though probable cause, which is not guilt, made an indictment a slam dunk.

But, the real issue here is not Darren Wilson or the grand jury. The point here is state violence. We live in a society in which the only response to social crises is massive state violence and coercion both at home and abroad. We have destroyed the social safety net; we have forced young people, the poor and the unemployed into low wage jobs with little or no job security. Socially excluded and marginalized populations now dominate the social structure, particularly in urban areas. These groups become the targets of the law and the police. Urban areas are segregated into secure, protected “gated” locations and “wild zones,” areas beyond the capacity of the state to control or regulate. Everyday life looks more like the 1850s rather than the 21st Century. A frenzied war on its own population becomes the last gasp of a dying system of state sovereignty. The desperate foraging for short term profit and capital becomes the last gasp of an economic system that can no longer expand, no longer produce, and must therefore consume itself as its only source of wealth. The United States in late modernity has entered an era of “destructive self-reproduction” where it eats itself to sustain its failing life. Crises and economic dislocations have become permanent features of the system, rather than episodic crises like the Great Depression. These crises are spreading across both time and space creating an endemic, permanent crisis. And society’s response is a pervasive fear of the mythical “other” and pervasive state violence under the color of law as the only response. It is virtually impossible for the contemporary American state to respond to the politics of rage with any policy other than repression and the use of coercive state power.

Gary Potter
Professor, School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University


  1. And to allow the display of state violence to be so open and nakedly displayed without fear of the loss of legitimacy is a further sign of the crisis…

  2. This is concise and needed commentary, Dr. Potter. Proud to say you work at my alma mater (Philosophy B.A., 2009). Sharing this on the social media accounts I run in Toledo, where I attend grad school (U. of Toledo, Sociology).

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