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Defense of #Ferguson grand jury as a crucible for truth fails straight-face test

Cross posted from the Frederick Leatherman Law Blog

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Good morning:

Paul Callan, a former prosecutor, ironically calls for sanity in his article at the Daily Beast yesterday titled, There’s No Conspiracy in Ferguson’s Secret Jury. I say ‘ironically’ because his argument is based on the fundamental Sixth Amendment rights of an accused to be represented by conflict-free counsel who cross examines prosecution witnesses in a public trial, not a secret grand jury proceeding.

As he well knows, the target of the grand jury investigation is Officer Darren Wilson. Neither Wilson nor his lawyer have a right to be present when the grand jury hears evidence about his case. They have no right to know who the witnesses are or what they say and there is no right to cross examine. There is no judge and the rules of evidence do not apply. The prosecutor decides what the charge or charges should be and he controls what evidence the grand jury gets to hear. He can introduce evidence that would not be admissible in court, such as hearsay or inadmissible civilian and expert opinions. He has no obligation to present exculpatory evidence. For all of these reasons, grand juries have been called star-chamber proceedings. Critics are only half-kidding when they say that a prosecutor can persuade a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.

The flaw in Callan’s argument is that he assumes that the prosecutor will play the traditional role of defense counsel in a public trial to aggressively, thoroughly and effectively expose the truth in the crucible of cross examination. That assumption is false because a prosecutor’s job is to represent the people by obtaining an indictment to prosecute the defendant, not defend him. If, as in this case, the prosecutor has close ties to police — his father was a white police officer who was killed by a black male and he has a history of sympathy for white cops and antipathy for black defendants — there is a reasonable and legitimate concern that he has a conflict of interest.

The unstated premise in Callan’s call for ‘sanity’ is no one should worry about the outcome of the grand jury because the prosecutor is going to play the role normally entrusted to an aggressive, thorough and effective defense lawyer using cross examination to expose the black eyewitnesses for the ‘liars’ that they are.

The grand jury’s job is limited to deciding if probable cause exists to believe Darren Wilson murdered an unarmed Michael Brown. The answer is “Yes,” and we have known that since August 9th, a few hours after the shooting.

Whether he is guilty or not guilty should be determined by a jury after a full and fair public trial presided over by a judge who correctly applies the rules of evidence.

Read this excerpt from Callan’s call for sanity and let us know what you think.

In a high-profile matter like the Brown case, the prospect of a witness getting his or her name and image in the newspaper or on TV by embellishing the story is for some an irresistible temptation. Repeating an embellished story before a grand jury while under oath is an entirely different matter. The grand jury inquiry affords opportunity to test accuracy of witness accounts. If the witness did in fact witness such a terrible crime, the testimony will survive in the crucible of cross-examination. If true, it will have a discernable [sic] consistency with the forensic evidence. Was the witness really in the time and place to have made the claimed observations? Was the suspect raising his hands in a surrender gesture or could the arm placement have been viewed from a different angle as an aggressive “tackle” gesture? How close was Michael Brown to Officer Wilson when he turned in Wilson’s direction? How much time did the officer have to react? Do the varied autopsy reports support or contradict witness testimony? Did Michael Brown have a motive to violently attack the officer?

Experienced prosecutors can recount case after case of witnesses recanting or altering colorful public statements under cross-examination. Witnesses also make unintentional errors sometimes based on what they have heard from others. Once again focused inquiry by the prosecutor and even the grand jurors who have the right to ask their own questions, can clarify ambiguous or inaccurate points.

By the way, I happen to know a lot about grand jury practice and procedure because I have represented many clients who were targets, subjects or witnesses during my 30-year career as a felony criminal defense lawyer.

To say that a grand jury is an ideal way to discover the truth does not pass the straight-face test because it cannot be said without laughing.

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Frederick Leatherman

Frederick Leatherman

I am a former law professor and felony criminal defense lawyer who practiced in state and federal courts for 30 years specializing in death penalty cases, forensics, and drug cases.

I taught criminal law, criminal procedure, law and forensics, and trial advocacy for three years after retiring from my law practice.

I also co-founded Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW) at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle and recruited 40 lawyers who agreed to work pro bono, assisted by law students, representing 17 innocent men and women wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing their children in the notorious Wenatchee Sex Ring witch-hunt prosecutions during the mid 90s. All 17 were freed from imprisonment.

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