A Reflection on Ferguson Before the Grand Jury Decision

In light of the mounting tension and unrest that is happening in Ferguson, MO over the Darren Wilson-Michael Brown incident, I thought I would offer up some words about this case and the national attention it has garnered. Even though I have had a lot of thoughts regarding this tragic and difficult issue, and even though I have read a substantial amount of news articles since the shooting in August, I have held back saying or writing much about it (I did have a few Facebook posts early on, but since August I’ve only posted a few articles here and there). Yet I think now is the time to say something. It is important to put these thoughts down on paper before the grand jury reaches their decision and it is announced (possibly Monday?). Much discussion will follow that announcement, especially if any of the evidence from the grand jury meetings is released.

What do I want to say and why is it important to say it prior the decision handed down by the grand jury? I have learned quite a bit about the state of America over the past two to three months, and much of it is troubling and disappointing. I specifically want to focus on six issues. Feel free to only read those that interest you.

  1. Conflicting Accounts
  2. The Grand Jury
  3. Justice for Michael Brown and Darren Wilson
  4. Protester and Police Violence
  5. The State of America
  6. My Own View

Conflicting Accounts

Right from the beginning there were conflicting accounts of what happened that fateful afternoon in the encounter between Wilson and Brown that left Brown shot to death. The testimony of Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, and Wilson and his fellow officer were quite different (you know the details: one side said Wilson was the aggressor and shot Brown who had his hands up and was surrendering; the other side says Brown was the aggressor who attacked Wilson and went for his gun and then charged Wilson, prompting the officer to fatally shoot him). In addition to the sharply different accounts by those involved in the incident, there were conflicting eye-witnesses accounts from the beginning. In the days following, other evidence came to light that proved that some eye-witness accounts were in fact wrong (the autopsy of Brown showed the bullets entered him from the front, not the back; so he was not running away). Why are these conflicting accounts important? When dealing with a crime scene, unanimity of testimony and eye-witness accounts makes it much more likely that both the police and the public can have a relatively accurate idea of what actually happened. However, with such starkly contrasting accounts floating around regarding the Wilson-Brown incident, it becomes much, much harder to put together an accurate account of the sequence of events, let alone claim real knowledge of what happened. This has been stressed again and again by most stories run by major news outlets: after giving the basic facts of the encounter between the officer and the young man, they move on to other issues surrounding the case, refusing to claim that they actually know what happened and who is to blame. This is wise on the part of the media. Yet this has not stopped some people (and apparently a lot of people) from claiming virtually infallible knowledge of what happened, who is at fault, and what must be done about it. Such a trend is troubling to say the least, and shows that many people do not understand the significance of conflicting testimony. (However, even if there was eye-witness consensus, this still would not justify the public claiming genuine knowledge of what happened; this can only be determined once the full weight of the evidence is heard and evaluated by the criminal-justice system).

The Grand Jury

The current Prosecuting Attorney for St. Louis County, Robert McCulloch, decided to send the case to a grand jury. What is a grand jury? Before a criminal case can go to a trial court, the prosecutor must determine whether there is enough evidence to try the person who’s been arraigned. This is known as probable cause. Probable cause does not declare a person innocent or guilty; it simply says that the evidence warrants taking the person to court to be tried where innocence or guilt will be declared. To determine probable cause, the prosecutor has a number of options. One would be to use a preliminary hearing. Preliminary hearings are usually public and they involve both judges and lawyers. Or the prosecutor could go the route of a grand jury. Grand juries differ from preliminary hearings in a number of ways: they are private (behind closed doors), a jury of citizens hears the case instead of a judge, lawyers are not involved, and the prosecutor has complete control over what evidence is presented (meaning, the defendant cannot present countervailing evidence).

McCulloch went with a grand jury. In this case, there are twelve people on the grand jury, and nine of them must agree before probable cause judgment can be made against Wilson. This grand jury was McCulloch’s call to make and no one else’s. Although you might disagree with this move, I don’t think we should see any ill-intent involved in this decision at all. Given (a) the conflicting eye-witness testimony from the get-go, (b) the seriousness of the case (possible murder), and (c) the publicity and controversy surrounding the case (not to mention the racial issues), sending the case to a grand jury was a wise move. Unfortunately, many people – and even some news outlets – have a made a big hullabaloo over the fact that the grand jury is meeting “in secret.” But this is the very definition of how a grand jury functions, and how they must function by law. Why does a grand jury meet behind closed doors? One reason is to encourage anyone with evidence to come forward and present that evidence before the jury and prosecutor in a safe and secure environment where they need not fear. In line with this, the privacy grants protection to the jury members and the decision they hand down, without them having to fear for their safety or any other kind of repercussions that might befall them if they return a decision that the public dislikes (in addition, the identities of the twelve grand jury members will never be made known). Both of these reasons aids the cause of fairness and justice within our criminal justice system. We want every shred of evidence to be heard; we want those testifying and those on the jury to feel safe so that they can think clearly and follow the evidence where it leads and to not let the tossing waves of public sentiment outside determine their decision. To allow the jury to be unduly influenced, manipulated, cajoled, or threatened into making a certain decision would surely be to pervert justice. For anyone who cares about justice, this must not be allowed to happen. This is especially true in this case, as both the prosecutor and the grand jury are under tremendous pressure to indict Officer Wilson, both from the public, advocacy groups, and even the government. While a professional lawyer and judge might be able to handle such pressures in a preliminary hearing (but this is not a guarantee) and still hand down a verdict determined only by the evidence and their conscience, this is far more likely to be achieved by a grand jury that is shielded from such perverting influences. We should be glad for this.

A grand jury is also more likely to produce a probable cause verdict than a preliminary hearing because with a grand jury the prosecutor has no competition. No lawyers for the defendant are allowed to argue, bring counter evidence, or present eye-witnesses. Instead, the prosecutor has complete and total discretion to use whatever evidence he or she feels is relevant, and to call whatever eye-witnesses they want. How easy is it to get a probable cause verdict from a prosecutor and grand jury? There is a saying that a prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich – it’s that easy. What this means is that if the grand jury in this case returns a no true bill (non-indictment) of Wilson, then there really is no evidence to indict and try Wilson at all. However, some say that we cannot trust the St. Louis County Prosecutor, Robert McCulloch. They point to accusations that he is biased against the black community and that he is favorably disposed toward the police because his own father was a police officer who was shot and killed by a black man. I do not have the time to examine these allegations in detail in this post, but I would draw your attention to this press conference where McCulloch explains how the case is unfolding in the judicial system. Note especially that parallel investigations are being conducted by the U.S. Attorney and the FBI. Any idea that McCulloch is a rogue prosecutor doing his own thing without oversight or accountability is simply ridiculous. McCulloch’s own words are, “One thing that I have pledged is that we will do a full, fair, complete, and impartial investigation into this. Nothing will be left untouched. We will look at absolutely everything that comes in.” What more could you want from a prosecutor?

Again, let me emphasize: the very point of the grand jury is to gather and weigh all the evidence in the case in order to determine if there is probable cause and if the case should go to a trial court. Why would we not want this to happen? Why would anyone think this destroys the possibility of justice or a correct verdict? There is no secret conspiracy going on and there is no coverup. This is normal American judicial proceedings. If anyone thinks otherwise, they demonstrate their ignorance and naivety about the justice system in this country. If they want to claim that the justice system is corrupt, that’s fine; but they must provide compelling evidence to show that the criminal justice system in St. Louis that is handling this case is so corrupt as to guarantee an unjust outcome. Vague appeals to a corrupt and racist national criminal justice system simply won’t do. [1] For those who are decrying the plight of our criminal justice system, here is my question: what would you have us do? Would you prefer a street trial, vigilante justice, or no trial at all? What alternative do you have to offer except to say that somehow you know the truth in this case and so you can accurately determine innocence and guilt? To claim this is to ascend to the height of narcissistic arrogance. We have no option but to work with the criminal justice system we have and do our very best to remove and reform corrupting influences, even while hoping those prosecutors, jurors, and judges involved will judge impartially and do justice. [2] One final note: if Wilson is indicted by the grand jury, my guess is that most people are going to treat this as a guilty sentence and think Wilson should be punished. But this would be false. As I mentioned, all a grand jury indictment means is that they have probable cause for thinking he committed a crime. The case then goes to trial where a judge, lawyers, and a jury will decide his fate. Even if the case gets this far, Wilson still might be innocent, and he still might walk free. If America is already struggling not to prejudge this case before the grand jury’s decision, I have little hope she will not prejudge the trial if Wilson is indicted. This is a terrible shame, for it violates one of the most important and sacred legal principles of western civilization: a person is innocent until proven guilty.

Let me give you an example of the kind of thinking that has undermined the grand jury’s ability to do justice in this case and is misleading the public. Just this morning (Sunday) I saw a Facebook post from a friend who had taken a freedom ride to ferguson this weekend. The quote below evidences severe ignorance of our judicial system and the (unfortunate) desire that the grand jury make their decision based on the public outcry – and not on the available evidence.

As much as we tried to coordinate our arrival with the announcement, it will not come this weekend. This means two things: 1) There is still a chance that an indictment could occur. The grand jury hears the cries of their city and maybe that cry is a reminder that injustice is intolerable. 2) There must be a second Denver Freedom Ride to Ferguson of trained leaders.

Obviously this individual wants the grand jury to indict Wilson. This is in keeping with his belief that Brown was unjustly murdered by Wilson. However, this has not yet been determined and is exactly the question before the grand jury! To presuppose that Wilson murdered Brown and thus the grand jury should return an indictment is to beg the very question before us: what happened and who is at fault? [3] This individual has placed himself above the law, deciding who is guilty and who is innocent before all the evidence has been heard and made known – and in doing so he has become a law unto himself. This seems to be the approach of many people in this case. [4] In addition, he clearly wants the grand jury to “hear the cries of their city” and judge accordingly. But this is exactly what the grand jury is not supposed to do! No prosecutor, grand jury, preliminary hearing, court, or judge should decide probable cause, indictment, reasonable doubt, or innocence and guilt due to how loudly the people of a city or nation cry out – no matter how sincere, heartfelt, and passionate that cry is. It is the duty of the justice system to let the evidence – and the evidence alone – determine the outcome of criminal cases. It is the duty of the justice system to judge impartially and without favoritism, treating each person equally under the law and judging them based on the content of their character and the merits or demerits of their actions. While outcry from a population is often genuine, it may not match up with the facts of the case; entire groups of people can be misinformed or deceived about a case, led to believe that a gross injustice has occurred when perhaps it has not. Since this is what the grand jury is seeking to determine, they must not let the cries and demands of an impatient populace sway their decision. It is deeply troubling to see intelligent, passionate young people so uninformed about our justice system (and the nature of justice in general) and acting so unwisely and rashly in this situation. While he may not know it, this individual (and all those who take his approach on both sides of this case) is actually obstructing justice, perverting the law, and misleading others all while claiming to be acting in the service of justice, fairness, and racial equality.

For my friend in this instance, and for all those who have followed in his footsteps, I would plead with you to be reminded of a wise saying:

The one who states his case first seems right,
until the other comes and examines him.
(Proverbs 18:17)

Let us not be quick to rush to judgment no matter how strongly we feel about the situation or how closely we identify with one side or the other. Let us instead allow the full evidence to be set before us and for both sides to be carefully examined before we come to a conclusion.

Justice for Michael Brown and Darren Wilson

Many people on both sides of this case have been crying out for justice – justice for Mike Brown or justice for Darren Wilson (although, the calls for justice for Brown are louder and more frequent). I agree with this desire and I think it is good. However, I’m afraid there are some major problems here. When I say I want justice for Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, I do not mean that I have decided what is just in this case and I’m calling on the prosecutor and grand jury to agree with my decision. Many people do not seem to realize that justice does not have a preordained outcome. Saying, “Justice requires X outcome” is to unjustly prejudge the issue without proper warrant. This is wrong, it is not justice, and it greatly increases the risk that true justice will be perverted. The only outcome justice requires is that the dictates of justice be met.

But what are the dictates of justice? It is interesting to note just how often the word “justice” in all its hashtag variations crops up across the internet. Everyone, it seems, cares about justice. Everyone wants justice to be done. And a lot of people have very different ideas of what justice is and what it looks like. Yet I have not seen a single article that actually asks what the essence of justice is, how to know when an injustice has occurred, and how to be sure when justice is accomplished in our society. Instead, people rely upon a gut feeling about what justice is and how it should be carried out. But is this sufficient? What do we do if my gut tells me something different than yours? Instead of relying on instinct or urges to tell us what justice is, let us use our minds to examine the concept briefly to see if we can come to a more definitive understanding.

First, justice can be divided into two basic aspects: formal justice and substantial justice. Formal justice refers to the official administration of justice in society and includes such elements as procedural fairness, due process of law, and equal opportunity and treatment (to a trial, judge, etc.). We can all agree that these are very important and that America has both a strong creedal commitment to formal justice and has striven to achieve this lofty goal (although, of course, we have failed many times and have had serious lapses in our history – as all nations and peoples have). The second aspect, substantial justice, refers to fairness and equity embedded in the rules of law and the proper enforcement of these rules. This refers to the specific rules the law contains: if you transgress in such-and-such an area, you receive a certain kind of punishment. A person should face a fair trial based on his or her merits and demerits. If you steal a piece of candy, you should not be handed a 20-year incarceration sentence that would be fitting for a murderer; and vice versa. In Aristotelian ethics, this latter aspect is identical with Aristotle’s idea of particular justice: the proper distribution of rewards and punishments to those in view (i.e., giving someone their due). This entails the principle of proportionality and the idea that equals should be treated equally and unequals should be treated unequally (e.g., civil and criminal punishments are different for children than they are for adults). Both the formal and substantial aspects of justice deal with the concept of human rights: because of the inherent and equal dignity of every human being, we each have basic rights that must be respected by the judicial system. [5]

The biblical data on justice is far too extensive to even survey at this point. But there are a number of themes revolving around justice that run throughout the Old and New Testaments. First, great stress is laid on formal justice, or due process of law (Ex. 18:13-27). Second, impartiality is emphasized over and over (Lev. 19:15; Deut. 16:18-20; Rom. 2:11; James 2:1-13). These demands for absolute impartiality and strict fairness are due to the fact that they perfectly accord with God’s own character (2 Chron. 19:4-11). Third, each person is judged according to merit (Ezek. 18; Rom. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:12). No one is judged for the sin of another; and each person is rewarded or punished proportionally according to what they have done. [6]

How does this relate to the Brown-Wilson case? Both formal and substantial justice should be applied (and I believe they currently are). Both should be given due process (even though Brown is dead, all the evidence regarding his actions should be weighed as equally as Wilson’s). Neither should be favored or shunned because of their skin color. Wilson should be released or punished on merit and demerit, according to what he has done as best as we can determine. [7] I think all Americans can agree to these things. However, here’s the key: none of this can be accomplished without all the evidence in the case being collected and weighed by the prosecutor, grand jury, and if necessary, a court. Justice requires evidence. And the evidence is still being processed in the criminal justice system in St. Louis county. Thus, since no one on the outside has access to this evidence, demands for justice that take the form of “Justice will look like X outcome” is not really a call for justice, but a demand that one’s personal opinion, belief, or preference be treated as justice. This is akin to a petulant child throwing a temper tantrum and demanding that their parents bow to their wishes. It is immature, immoral, and dangerous for our society.

Protester and Police Violence [8]

There have been legitimate problems on both the part of the protesters and the police as to illegal and unnecessary violence. The original violence against local shops by citizens of Ferguson back in August was totally unacceptable. This absolutely violates and betrays one of the most important principles of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s: peaceful protest, non-violence, and forgiveness of enemies. Let me remind you what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his 1963 march on Washington speech:

For there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the threshold that leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy, which has engulfed the Negro community, must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is part of our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone; and as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.

Do not drink from the cup of bitterness, hatred, and violence. Meet physical force and violence with non-violence and soul force. I know of many good protesters – black and white – who are nobly attempting to abide by this difficult calling – and I exhort, encourage, and applaud them.

The protester violence back in August was not only immoral and self-destructive to the case of justice, but it was publicly and economically devastating. Businesses have boarded up, closed, or left. Business owners are afraid. Citizen gun sales have gone through the roof. If there was ever a way to sow fear, mistrust, and more violence in a city, violent protests that wantonly destroy property is the way to do it. In addition, historically it has been the case that cities that have suffered violent protests have seen terrible economic recessions for decades afterwards. If you were a business owner, would you want to start a business if Ferguson right now or next year? Of course not.

Due to this, I think that an appropriate police force is absolutely critical and necessary to keep the peace and prevent violence. What exactly constitutes “appropriate” is debatable, but I think the initial response with police in army fatigues, military-grade weapons, and military combat vehicles was inappropriate and unwise. I have been pleased to see how police departments around the country have since responded and in many ways amended their approach. I’m not saying everything is perfect; nor am I saying there is no wrongful police violence against citizens or illegal and unconstitutional actions taken by police personnel and departments currently. Civil rights groups are right to watch the police carefully. Again, I harken back to MLK’s words in 1963:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights: when will you be satisfied? We will never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality…I am not unmindful, that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Protesters should stand up to police brutality and expose it. We are all in danger from it. At the same time, realize the current police presence in Ferguson is due to the violence that engulfed the city back in August. People on either side of this issue – those who condemn the violent protesters and those who condemn the violent police officers – need to be able to see both sides. Peaceful protests are welcome; so is a peaceful police presence. Unilaterally condemning all protesters or all police is immature, ignorant, and shallow. Grow up. It would be easy to make two mistakes regarding the protesters and police at this point: on the one hand, we might lump the peaceful protesters in with the violent ones, call them all “thugs” and then associate Michael Brown with them, assuming he got what he deserved; on the other hand, we might decide that Wilson was a racist, violent, trigger-happy cop, and that all police are like him, leading us to dismiss all police officers out on the streets as vicious, malevolent “pigs.” Both responses, of course, are shamefully wrong. Instead, each protester and each police officer must be judged by the content of their character and the merits and demerits of their own behavior. Anything less would be a direct betrayal of MLK’s plea: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.” To judge a person by anything less than the content of their character is to act in solidarity with the slaveowners and segregationists of past decades.

A final note on protest in general. Public protesting in America has, in some ways, become sacrosanct. Citizens have a right to peaceful protesting, but I want to warn us against an entitlement mentality to not only protesting, but expecting that every authority will bow to our wishes simply because we take to the streets. The protests during the Civil Rights Movement of last century were intelligent, well-organized, and wisely carried out – even though they were very dangerous and risky. [9] I would encourage protesters to follow this same example, as protesting is not about baring and pounding your chest in the public square to prove to the world how manly you are, but it is a means to accomplishing a greater good – that of justice and righteousness in society.

The State of America

Having looked at four issues revolving around the Wilson-Brown case, what conclusions can we draw regarding the state of America and her people today?

  • Americans are too quick and rash in their rush to judgment. We read a news article or two or ten, we talk to friends, we impart our own experiences, knowledge, prejudices, and desires, and then we make up our minds as to what happened – and this all takes less than a week. Few seem willing to wait for all the evidence; even fewer seem willing to go to the hard work of reading and sifting through all that evidence.
  • Americans are an impatient people. We do not want to wait months for a grand jury to deliberate and come to a decision. We want justice now. We naively believe that if justice isn’t immediately forthcoming, there must be some corrupt plot afoot to foil justice. And so we make petulant demands and act in immature ways unbecoming of adults.
  • Many Americans are ignorant and stupefied, especially regarding the criminal justice system in America and the nature and dimensions of justice. We do not care to read deeply and broadly about our judicial heritage (i.e., English Common Law), nor do we understand the basic proceedings of criminal cases. We foolishly invert tried and true judicial principles of innocent until proven guilty, we do not know the difference between probable cause and reasonable doubt, and we think a justice system that does care about such things is somehow in violation of the dictates of justice. While we care with our hearts and our passions about justice, few seek to understand this important concept with their minds and then apply it in their actions.
  • Americans love to protest, but few seem to do it intelligently and wisely. It is viewed as an end in itself, a way to bring attention to ourselves and our plight, instead of part of the struggle for true justice and a flourishing civil society. Americans are right to protest when they think a gross wrong or injustice has occurred, but the protest effort must be better directed toward good ends.
  • America is still a deeply racially divided country. We have failed to judge each person by the content of their character and by their own behavior. Instead, we immediately descend into racial tribalism, calling black people “thugs” and white people “racists.” We allow familial and community relations to dominate what we believe instead of personally seeking out the truth. Will we be able to overcome racial allegiances and heal the scars of the past and present, or will we continue to diverge into black and white America?

My Own View

My own view of this case is that I simply do not know what happened on the fateful Saturday afternoon on August 9 in the encounter between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. I do not know who said what first or if and how a scuffle ensued. I do not know why Wilson shot Brown to death. Surely I have my opinions, hunches, and beliefs, but I do not claim anything for sure. I have decided to wait until the grand jury releases their decision and (hopefully) makes the evidence of the case public. Then I will seek to evaluate the evidence and decide for myself it the grand jury was right or wrong.

This approach is not popular. It’s boring, I admit. But so what? I don’t care about being flashy and popular. I’m not trying to project myself as some modern day civil rights prophetic activist of biblical proportions, calling down God’s judgment on an unjust and racist criminal justice system, or exposing the hidden racism behind every front door or hidden deep inside the psyche of whites. No, instead I care about truth and I care about justice. And I care enough about both of these things that I have investigated them for myself so that I can make the right judgment call regarding this incident at this time.

Since I care about truth, let me say a word about truth and knowledge briefly. Notice throughout this post I have placed the words “know” and “knowledge” in italics. This was on purpose, precisely because many people have conflated their beliefs with genuine knowledge. But these are not the same. Your beliefs can be true, or they can be false; and you can have true beliefs, but this does not make them knowledge if they happen to be true accidentally. Why is this? Knowledge has classically been understood as justified, true belief. You must have a belief that is true (i.e., it accords with reality) [10], but that true belief must also be justified – meaning, you have good reasons for holding that belief as being true. I contend that no one in this case outside of the prosecutor, grand jury, and federal agents still conducting the investigation can claim their beliefs about what happened between Brown and Wilson as knowledge. This is simply because no one yet knows the full details and evidence of the case that would allow one to be justified in their true belief.

For example, the protests for Michael Brown from which issue continual passionate pleas for justice and fairness, and for America to wake up and listen to the hurt, pain, and hope of an entire generation – all of this is based on an assumption, an assumption that cannot yet be claimed as an article of knowledge and which just might end up being false. And that assumption is that Michael Brown was an innocent citizen who was unjustly gunned down by a violent (and possibly racist) cop. If this turns out to be true, I stand behind the protesters: they are rightly protesting and I would join them in spirit, word, and action. But is this assumption true? Can we know it as of now, before the grand jury has made its decision on the basis of the full evidence? And what do we do if it so happens that this assumption is false? I aver that no one can truly know that the above assumption is true and be justified in that knowledge without the full evidence of the case. And since no citizen or public figure has access to this evidence, everyone who is claiming this assumption as definite knowledge is deceived (and likewise, those who claim for sure that Wilson is innocent also cannot truly know this). How will those protesting respond if the evidence clearly indicates that Wilson was justified in using legal force? Will they recant? Will they follow the evidence where it leads? Somehow, I doubt it. How will those who claim that Wilson is innocent respond if the evidence shows that he wrongly used force and was a racist to boot? Will they admit that America has a problem with unjustified police violence against blacks? Or will they pass it off as being trumped-up charges the the racial-grievance industry? Somehow, I doubt that they too would be willing to change their minds.

The problem is that once you to claim to know what happened before all the evidence has been heard, it becomes extremely psychologically difficult to backtrack on such sure-fire claims if the evidence turns out to be against you. There would be a heavy cost to having to apologize publicly for misjudging the issue: the embarrassment of admitting you were wrong, people who reject your backtracking and interpret it as capitulation or compromise, the loss of trust and credibility, the revelation of poor leadership, and more. This is why it is so incredibly important not to rush to judgment until the full evidence has been compiled and examined and one has examined the evidence for oneself. I have no problem with someone saying, “Given the evidence I’ve seen, and given my knowledge and experience of this situation, I believe X happened.” However, I would hope (and encourage) this person to hold their beliefs with an open heart and open mind, being willing to change their belief as the evidence dictates.

In our postmodern age this is very hard to do. At a time when national, group, and individual narratives dominate our public consciousness and dictate our understanding of the world, it can be very difficult to drill down to the truth of the matter. You can have a coherent and compelling narrative or story about what happened in Ferguson, but unless that narrative accords with the facts (i.e., corresponds with reality), it is worthless. Here’s an example of one possible (and I think probable) narrative that’s happening with Ferguson:

You have a read a couple books about the state of America’s judicial system with its corruption and racial profiling. You have experienced racist and violent cops. And so you believe that this is generally true of the entire American judicial system. When a white cop kills a black man who is unarmed, you immediately conclude that this is part and partial of the unjust and racial police departments in this country, and so you exonerate the black youth and demand justice for him. You do not understand the functioning of grand juries, and so you conclude that secret prosecutorial meetings is part of a coverup that will lead to the police officer walking free. If the grand jury indicts the police officer and then a court finds him guilty, you will have been shown to be right all along in your belief about the officer’s guilt, and justice will have been done; your protests would not have been in vain. If the grand jury fails to indict him, you are also proven right because it simply shows the corruption in the American judicial system. You protest with both justice for the black youth and the corrupt judicial system in mind, ready to judge the prosecutor and grand jury for their decision based upon the authority and wisdom you believe you have about the nature of justice and the state of racial America.

The problem with such a narrative – as internally coherent as it might be – is that it just might not add up with the facts of the case. But this oversight does not seem to bother many people. Facts? Evidence? Who cares about such things? No, instead, cultivate a compelling and coherent narrative, infuse it with conviction and authenticity, cover it with prophetic utterances and conviction – and then you will have a story so convincing that just about anyone will believe it. This, I’m afraid, is where we are headed. And this is why I have taken the time to write and reflect upon this very important issue.

Notes

[1] Regarding beliefs about the corruption of our justice system, at this point many people make two errors: the fallacy of division and the fallacy of composition. In the former (division), one falsely reasons that what is true of the whole must also be true of all the parts of the whole. If you think the entire criminal justice system as a whole is corrupt, it is false to conclude that every court and every grand jury is likewise corrupt. In the latter (composition), one falsely reasons that something is true of the whole from the fact of what is true of a part of the whole. If you know for sure that X court in Y state is corrupt, it is invalid to abstract up to the entire judicial system and conclude that every court across the country is corrupt. Instead, you must do the hard work of examining each court and each judicial institution in view in order to determine purity or corruption based on the evidence available.

[2] My own opinion its that a grand jury gives you a really good shot at justice and fairness. This is because the grand jury is composed of citizen-peers. This could be your neighbor, friend, or family-member. There are no lawyers or judges involved that might have skin in the game, or who could be bribed or paid off. The identity of citizen-jurers on a grand jury are never made public; they will literally never get any publicity or renown for their part in the case. However, if you really despise our criminal justice system, then go to work reforming it! Please do not sit around and do nothing until a case comes up that you care about and then moan and groan about how unfair the current judicial system is.

[3] This is also happening on the other side, where a Facebook page called “Justice for Darren Wilson” has been set up that contends that “Darren Wilson was attacked and he defended himself. This is also illegitimately prejudging the case.

[4] This is true of both sides, but it especially prevalent with those who defend Brown.

[5] For Aristotle’s view of justice, see Nicomachean Ethics, Book V. For philosophical articles on justice, please visit the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[6] For resources on biblical justice, basic dictionaries are a good place to start. For example: A. J. Gamble, “Justice,” in Encyclopedia of Biblical and Christian Ethics, edited by R.K. Harrison, 217-218 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992); Bruce C. Birch, “Justice,” in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, edited by Joel B. Green, 433-437 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011); and E.R. Hayes, “Justice, Righteousness,” in Dictionary of Old Testament Prophets, edited by Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville, 466-472 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012).

[7] At this point, someone is very likely to say, “What more is there to know? Wilson murdered Brown, plain and simple. He should be convicted.” I’ve seen this repeated ad nauseam on social media, but there is a basic confusion here. All we know for sure at the moment is that Wilson killed Brown, not that he murdered him. What’s the difference? A lot! Killing is one person dying at the hands of another person; it tells us nothing of the motivation, innocence, guilt, or justifiable reasons that might be involved. A murder (or homicide) is an unjustified killing of a (usually) innocent person (whether it’s 1st or 2nd degree; manslaughter is slightly less severe than murder as it’s not malicious, whether or not it’s justified). The key is that murder is unjustified: there is no good reason (self defense, death penalty, war) for the killing. In this case, the whole point of the grand jury is to determine whether Wilson killing Brown was unjustified, in which case it very well might be murder; or Wilson might have killed Brown in self defense, in which case it would be a justified manslaughter. However, to speak of Wilson “murdering” Brown is to beg the very question before the court. This is sloppy and fallacious reasoning.

[8] I mean no disrespect by calling these people “protesters.” I realize they are men and women, black and white, poor and rich; they are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers; they view themselves as freedom fighters, concerned citizens, and the like. I simple use “protester” to collectively refer to them all. If you want to become unnecessarily offended by this, feel free.

[9] For a fascinating and erudite read on the freedom rides of 1961, see Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[10] This is known as the correspondence theory of truth.

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