This week, Complex Pop Culture staffers will write about the event of 2014 that let them down the most, because we're all Grinches. Today, associate editor Lauretta Charlton writes about how we desperately need to reform our grand jury system.
This has been a difficult year. It’s hard to identify just one of the ways in which it has been disappointing, but in the interest of letting my anger get the best of me, I have decided to select grand juries.
Before Mike Brown and Eric Garner were killed by police officers, I didn’t know much about the grand jury process. I wanted to wrap my head around why both officers hadn’t been indicted, so I started reading.
If you don’t register to vote, you can’t serve jury duty. If you’re unable to serve jury duty, you’ll never be selected for grand jury. If you’re not eligible to be a grand jury member, you’re part of the problem.
Grand juries were originally established in England. The purpose of the grand jury was to prevent unjust punishment handed down from the king. For this reason, those who served on a grand jury were guaranteed total anonymity. Today’s grand juries convene to determine whether or not there is enough “probable cause” to prove that an individual has committed a crime, in which case an indictment is issued.
According to FiveThirtyEight, in 2010 U.S. attorneys prosecuted approximately 162,000 federal cases. A grand jury declined to return indictments a mere 11 times. In other words, it’s very easy to find probable cause—unless, of course, a police officer is involved. You can “indict a ham sandwich,” but indicting a cop is next to impossible.
One case gave me hope, though. In September of last year, 24-year-old college football player Jonathan Ferrell was shot to death by a police officer in North Carolina. Ferrell had been in a car accident and was looking for help. Officer Randall Kerrick was responding to a breaking-and-entering call nearby when he saw Ferrell approaching. Kerrick dumped ten bullets into his body. Ferrell was unarmed. In January of this year, Kerrick was indicted on voluntary manslaughter charges. As the New York Times reports, what makes this case special is that it was prosecuted by the state and not local prosecutors. Local prosecutors work very closely with local law enforcement. That's a serious conflict of interest, and killer cops are getting away with murder because of it.
Another reason why grand juries are my biggest disappointment of 2014 is because many of us consider basic jury duty to be a complete waste of time. Our first instinct when we open the jury duty summons is, "How quickly can I get out of this?" This is the same logic behind the "I don’t vote because my vote doesn’t matter" argument.
Sometimes voting can feel like "pissing into the ocean," as one colleague described it to me last election day, but criticizing the process without participating in it is backwards logic. If you don’t register to vote, you can’t serve jury duty. If you’re unable to serve jury duty, you’ll never be selected for grand jury. If you’re not eligible to be a grand jury member, you’re part of the problem. You’re part of the reason why Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo walked.
The system isn’t perfect and it is designed to under-serve minorities. For me, that’s more of a reason to continue to lead registration drives, speak out against voter ID laws, oppose things like Citizens United, and call for grand jury reform. It’s hard to pick just one disappointment of 2014, but this is a start. Let’s do something about it.
Lauretta Charlton is an associate editor at Complex. She writes about culture, dating, and social issues. Follow her on Twitter here.