When the Missouri Legislature convenes Wednesday, lawmakers will consider a host of bills aimed at issues spotlighted during Ferguson protests: wearable and dash cameras for cops, municipal traffic ticket revenue, police use of deadly force, special prosecutors for officer-involved shooting deaths.
But if legislators want to ask questions about the Ferguson grand jury, either to better understand the aftermath of Michael Brown's death or while considering changes to grand-jury protocol, only one person is allowed to answer: St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch. Per state law, the grand jurors who investigated the case must stay silent about it for life or face criminal penalties.
One grand juror, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, wants to change that.
"Do we want the government controlling how we talk about the issues related to Ferguson, or do we want our elected officials to have a complete picture of what occurred?" says Jeffery Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri. "The grand juror believes that the legislature needs to know so that they can make a full and informed decision."
The grand juror, known in the lawsuit only as Grand Juror Doe, is suing for the right to speak out about the case without facing misdemeanor charges punishable by up to one year in jail, a fine of up to $1,000 or both.
"You have the government controlling this debate and then saying to everybody else, 'Nobody can share their opinion,'" says Mittman, who calls the lifetime gag order for Ferguson grand jury members "egregious."
McCulloch released much of the information from the grand-jury investigation, including thousands of pages of redacted testimony, photos and recordings, after the jury's November 24 decision not to indict then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. But Grand Juror Doe says that those documents -- as well as McCulloch's statements about the case in press interviews -- mischaracterize jurors' opinions and experiences.
"In [the grand juror's] view, the current information available about the grand jurors' views is not entirely accurate -- especially the implication that all the grand jurors believed that there was no support for any charges," the lawsuit says.
The juror, whom Mittman calls "very civically minded," says he or she wants to contribute to the national dialogue Ferguson sparked about race relations, especially "whether the release of records has truly provided transparency; [the grand juror's] impression that evidence was presented differently than in other cases, with the insinuation that Brown, not Wilson, was the wrongdoer; and questions about whether the grand jury was clearly counseled on the law," according to the lawsuit.
There are plenty of reasons not to allow grand jurors to speak publicly about their cases, but Mittman says those reasons don't apply to Grand Juror Doe's case. For example, the grand juror won't affect the outcome of the the trial or other witness testimonies because the grand-jury investigation has already ended.
Grand jurors are also kept silent to protect the reputations of defendants who are not charged with a crime. Now that Darren Wilson is a household name, Mittman says, that doesn't apply either.
"In this case, we know who it was about," Mittman tells Daily RFT. "That right there is a reason why there is no need for secrecy."
Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club
Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.
Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.