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Finley: Don't fault Ferguson grand jury

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Criticism is storming down on the grand jury that decided not to return an indictment against a white police officer who shot a black teen in Ferguson, Missouri.

I can't say whether the jurors reached the right decision. Like all other commentators and protesters alike, I didn't have the benefit of reviewing the voluminous evidence as they did. But the jury did reach a credible and defensible decision.

Under Missouri law, once evidence of self-defense is introduced, the question the grand jury must determine is whether the prosecution can prove the defendant did not act in self defense. Before it could indict, the jury had to find there was probable cause to reject all evidence supporting the self-defense claim.

That's a high threshold. The grand jury surely felt outside pressure to indict and let the matter be settled at trial. It was a tough decision not to do so, with the whole world watching.

But the jurors clearly saw something in the evidence to indicate a credible case for self-defense.

That doesn't diminish the broader societal issue regarding the disparate impact of the law on the poor and minorities, particularly on young African-American males, or of their treatment by police.

But this grand jury was not charged with resolving America's racial divide. Its mission was was to weigh the facts of this case as presented. The outcome disappointed many.

It doesn't matter. Justice shouldn't be manipulated by the cries of the crowd.

From the very moment of the shooting, there were those who decided Darren Wilson's guilt, and would have dragged him into the public square for punishment even before an investigation, let alone an indictment or conviction.

But an officer who shoots a citizen has the same due process protections as a citizen who shoots a cop.

This time, the law regarding self-defense worked in Wilson's favor. The next time, it could work in favor of a young, black man. Or of you or me.

Sometimes the justice system gets it wrong, as many think it did in the Ferguson case. And there are things that need to be fixed. For example, indigent defendants who have to rely on public defenders don't get the same quality of defense as those who can afford their own representation.

There's also the reality of prosecutors hoping to avoid the expense of a trial inflating charges in hopes of leveraging a plea agreement. That also disproportionately impacts the poor.

But overall, the system works, and shouldn't be disparaged because in some cases it doesn't deliver the verdict the crowd demands.

Again, there's plenty of room for criticism of the way things unfolded in Ferguson. It's worth examining how the investigation was conducted. And everyone should ask how a city that is two-thirds black ends up with a police force on which 50 of 53 officers are white.

The grand jury, however, is not the culprit here. It took the evidence it was presented and weighed it under the confines of state law. And it reached a decision based on that evidence. That's how justice works.