Florida residents may have experienced some of the controversy that came with a high-profile murder in August. The grand jury’s decision in November not to indict a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., over the killing of an unarmed teenager has demonstrated several important concepts within the American justice system. Legal observers agree that the method in which the grand jury phase of the police officer’s trial was administered appeared unusual.
Many witnesses were called to testify during the prosecutorial screening who would not have been called at a normal murder trial and, therefore, would certainly not have been seen during a normal grand jury hearing. Prosecutors usually present a grand jury with a brief version of their case, as the only purpose of the grand jury is to determine whether there is sufficient evidence for a trial.
However, in the Ferguson case, large numbers of obviously unreliable witnesses were asked to appear before the grand jury. It is not uncommon for people to be untruthful or incorrect in their testimony. On most occasions, the prosecutor would screen those with clearly inconsistent or irrelevant testimony. In the Ferguson case, nearly all those who claimed to have witnessed the incident were called, even those who could not possibly have been in the area or have seen the events. Supporters of the prosecutor assert that he was trying to be thorough, but critics of the case claim that may have been done to obfuscate the issue.
The criminal defense strategy of any person who has been accused of a serious crime should begin long before the trial. Ferguson underscores the importance of the grand jury to the criminal justice process, and the active assistance of a lawyer can make a difference, as the grand jury decides what acts may or may not constitute indictable offenses.
Source: CNN, “One challenge for Ferguson grand jury: Some witnesses’ credibility“, Josh Levs, December 14, 2014