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By Christine Byers, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

CLAYTON, Mo. — The grand jury considering whether Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson should be criminally charged in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown now has until Jan. 7 to decide.

The extension of the grand jurors’ term of duty does not necessarily mean the job will take that long, officials said. But it could.

There is significant apprehension, especially along the West Florissant Avenue business strip hit by looting and rioting after the killing Aug. 9, that violence might return if the grand jury does not send Wilson to trial for something. Some activists have threatened as much.

A St. Louis County grand jury usually sits for four months, a period that for the current panel expired last week. State law provides for a term of up to six months, which moves the date to November. On Sept. 10, Circuit Judge Carolyn Whittington issued an order adding 60 days more.

“She extended it to the full amount allowed by law,” Court Administrator Paul Fox said Monday. But he said the grand jury will keeping meeting until Jan. 7 only if it needs to.

The panel now is hearing evidence in the Michael Brown case exclusively, and can meet whenever it needs to, Fox said.

The grand jury is 12 people selected from the standard jury pool to meet in secret, usually weekly, to hear evidence and decide whether criminal charges are warranted. It takes nine votes to issue an indictment, which sends a defendant to a public trial.

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch can bypass a grand jury and take a case to trial by filing a complaint that goes first to a preliminary hearing, a public proceeding in which a judge decides if there should be a trial. Often, his office files a charge first and then obtains an indictment to replace it, avoiding the preliminary hearing.

McCulloch chose to take the full investigation of Wilson’s use of deadly force to the grand jury. He announced weeks ago that he would present all the evidence gathered, leaving to grand jurors the decision of what to do.

His spokesman, Ed Magee, said Monday it is a somewhat unusual circumstance in that the office is not asking the grand jury to endorse a charge already filed. He said prosecutors will help the grand jury navigate legal issues while drawing its own conclusion about what to do with Wilson.

Wilson is entitled but not obligated to testify. If he does, he must leave his attorney at the door.

Police said that Wilson, who is white, struggled with Brown, 18, who is black, and that during the episode Brown was killed by Wilson’s shots. Some witnesses claimed Brown was surrendering when he died.

AFP Photo/Joshua Lott

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Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.