The Huffington Post recently published an article written by Attorney Steven Brill that discusses the role of the grand jury in the headline-making Ferguson and Staten Island cases. In both cases, the actions of white police officers resulted in the deaths of unarmed black men. The grand jury decisions to not indict police officers for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have resulted in demonstrations across the country regarding race equality.
While the racial implications of these incidents—such as habitual profiling and mistreatment of black men by police—have been discussed at length, Attorney Brill expressed discomfort with the role of grand jury in the process.
Attorney Brill believes both of these cases reveal the DA's atypical presentation and biased in favor of the police officers in connection with the presentation of evidence to the grand jury. This process is guided heavily by the prosecutor and is fairly one-sided. The prosecutor's arguments in the grand jury stage have an enormous implication on the outcome of a case. In a grand jury, there is a lower standard for the prosecutor than at a trial. As a result, the overwhelming majority of criminal charges—well over 95 percent—move on to trial.
In New York, all felony charges have to go through a grand jury. In the case of the shooting of Staten Island resident Eric Garner, the jury decided upon "no true bill," a technical term for "no indictment". The grand jury made this decision despite video evidence of the incident, which showed a police officer restraining Mr. Garner with a chokehold, even after hearing him gasp that he couldn't breathe.
In the article Attorney Brill explains that throughout his 20 years of legal experience in New York, he can "count on one hand" how many of his own cases resulted in a "no true bill", and further explained that cases involving a death with no indictment are an anomaly.
From Attorney Brill's viewpoint, the district attorney in the Ferguson case sounded more like a criminal defense attorney during his press conference on the grand jury decision, rather than a prosecutor trying to seek a criminal charge. Normally, the district attorney would explain that a grand jury that reached a "no true bill" decision had made an error in judgment, but the Ferguson D.A. did no such thing.
Attorney Brill explains in the Huffington Post article that the closeness of law enforcement and the District Attorney's Office can affect the way the grand jury process treats a case involving a police officer, which can strip justice away from victims. Had either of these crimes been committed by a civilian, the outcome would have likely been very different.
Read Attorney Brill's article in the Huffington Post: The Grand Jury When It Comes to Ferguson and Staten Island
Steven Brill is a criminal defense attorney at Sullivan & Brill, LLP in New York. Attorney Brill has aggressively defended the rights of New Yorkers since 1994, when he began his legal career as a public defender. During his career Attorney Brill has achieved an impressive record against both State and Federal prosecutor's offices and has served as lead counsel in more than 50 trials. Contact Sullivan & Brill, LLP if you need effective defense in New York City.