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Just a day after the grand jury announced not to indict police officer Darren Wilson, the city of Ferguson remains tense. Gwen Ifill speaks with Christina Swarns, Litigation Director for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Susan McGraw of St. Louis University, on the grand jury’s role in the legal system and what’s next for the city of Ferguson.
We turn now back to Ferguson, Missouri, a city still very much smoldering and tense in the wake of last night's protests over the grand jury decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.
The "NewsHour"'s Stephen Fee was out last night and again today to get more on the ground reaction.
Just after sunup today, a group of protesters blocked the off-ramp at South Brentwood Road, a short walk from the county courthouse where grand jurors decided not to indicted officer Darren Wilson.
I'm in disbelief. I thought most of us thought there wouldn't be an indictment, but you have to have faith. And we can't be surprised. But it hurts. It really hurts.
For less than 10 minutes, the group stopped traffic, hoisting signs and chanting. It was calm, peaceful.
And that's in contrast to the scenes we witnessed last night in Ferguson, as demonstrators took to the streets.
It didn't have to get to that point. It didn't. But we felt trapped. They blocked us in. People didn't know what to do. It was scary.
And was your anger justified?
There's demonstrations such as this that are organized and then there are demonstrations that aren't organized. And the ones that aren't organized quite often lead to some out-of-control stuff. There's also a lot of people from out of town that caused problems that came here to cause problems.
Back in Ferguson today, a long stretch of West Florissant, epicenter of last night's unrest, is blocked off as a crime scene. While the fires were mostly out, we could still see smoke from buildings hanging over the roadway. Small businesses here have taken a major hit.
Brothers Steve and Gus Safi owned and managed Prime Beauty on the corner of West Florissant and Chambers Road. Steve said he tried to secure the building before nightfall.
They still got in there, looted the place, and burned it down. As you see, it got burned to the ground. So, now we lost pretty much everything.
Steve says he disagrees with the grand jury's decision not to indict, but also with the decision to destroy small shops like his.
Justice hasn't been served and justice hasn't been served by burning my business or other businesses.
The store's assistant manager, who just gave us her first name, Jessica, was one of the shop's three employees. She says the destruction of local businesses last night was unjustified.
I feel that it's not right, you know, because it affected so many people in this community alone, a lot of residents, a lot of people that work at the mobile, that work at the barbershop. You know, this is a lot of people's basic source of income.
And hers, too.
I love my job, like a kid in a Candy store. And the only thing that is keeping me sane and keeping me calm is that we want to rebuild and we will have our jobs. It's just like, what are we going to do in the meantime? You know, bills have got to be paid. Bills are due. Rent is due. It's, like, what are we going to do?
And Stephen joins us now. He is near a police command center this evening in Jennings, Missouri. It's another town in Saint Louis County that is right next to Ferguson.
So, Stephen, we know you recorded those interviews earlier today. Tell us what the situation is there now.
Well, you know, it is just about nightfall here.
We're just probably a five-minute drive from the main drag of Ferguson, where you saw some of those dramatic images where we were last night. You have already seen a mobilization of some of those National Guard members who the governor spoke about earlier this evening. They have already begun to amass around the police station in Ferguson and we have also seen an increased police presence as well.
There have been a few coordinated actions, some in Clayton. That's the town where the county courthouse is, where the grand jury met, and other less coordinated actions going on into the evening hours. But right now it's really anybody's guess what nightfall will bring.
So, there's a sense of more — of a greater law enforcement presence tonight?
I would say absolutely.
You have seen a lot more law enforcement in the town as we were going around today compared with, say, yesterday afternoon. Even before the announcements were made, you didn't see a lot of police presence around the police department or on West Florissant Avenue, which is right over here, where a lot of that major activity broke out. Today, it's a very different story.
All day, a long stretch of West Florissant Avenue was basically an active crime scene. It was sealed off. We couldn't really get past the yellow tape. But there's a question about, you know, as you lock down other parts of the city, as you seal off some sectors, there's a real question about where will people gather if they choose to.
And, Stephen, most of the people you talk to seemed to be in disagreement with the grand jury decision. Have you run across anyone who believed the grand jury did the right thing?
Judy, we have. In fact, just a few hours ago, I spoke on a phone with a woman who didn't want to be named, but her husband is a police officer here in the state of Missouri. She's organized online a number of supporters for officer Darren Wilson.
She says that when she heard about the decision, she cried. She was relieved. She thought it had been such a long process, but she was also scared, her own husband working overtime last night. She says he's safe today, but that she thinks that officer Wilson hasn't been characterized correctly in the press, that she thinks there is a lot of misinformation out there.
But there is some commonality too on all sides of this issue. People are uncomfortable with the degree of violence that was reached last night and they're hopeful that this community can really turn a corner.
Stephen Fee on the ground for us in Missouri, we thank you.
Part of the confusion in Ferguson is what actually happened between Darren Wilson, the white officer, and Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager.
The evidence presented to the grand jury released late last night has stirred a new round of legal debate.
Joining us to explain, are Susan McGraugh, a law professor at Saint Louis University, and Christina Swarns, litigation director for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Let's start by talking about the process, Christina Swarns. How unusual was this grand jury process compared to others you have had an experience with?
CHRISTINA SWARNS, NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund: Yes, this was a remarkably unusual grand jury process.
I'm a criminal defense attorney. I have been a criminal defense attorney my entire career. I have put clients of mine into the grand jury, and I will say, in each of those cases, which in all the cases I handled were significantly much more minor offenses, you know, my clients were subjected to very real, very thorough, very aggressive cross-examination.
What you see here when you look at the transcript of Darren Walker's (sic) testimony in the grand jury, that there was virtually no challenge to the testimony that he offered here. This was just absolutely unheard of.
I mean, additionally, you know, this prosecutor allowed all of the evidence that was available to be presented to this grand jury. And we have to be clear that the point of a grand jury is simply to determine whether or not there is enough evidence to charge, to file a criminal charge. It's not about whether someone is guilty or innocent.
But that seems to be the way that this grand jury proceeding was handled, and that is simply unheard of. Many of my colleagues have opined and we have discussed amongst ourselves. I would love to have prosecutors handle my clients' cases in the way this prosecutor handled this defendant's case.
We're still trying to get our audio connection to Saint Louis. So, I want to stick with you for a moment, Christina.
Why isn't it a grand jury's job not to indict if the evidence supports it not? Are they only there to bring an indictment?
No, they're absolutely supposed to make a determination of whether there is or is not enough evidence to charge.
But, as you know, there is anecdotes — the anecdotes are legion about how easy it is to get an indictment before a grand jury. Right? The old quotation is, you can indict a ham sandwich. It's not hard. The evidence is, is there evidence to support a charge?
In this case, there's unquestionably evidence to support a charge. There is no dispute about whether the officer shot and killed Michael Brown. He concedes that when he testifies.
But there's plenty of dispute about exactly who caused this to happen and who started the fight and what the physical evidence was and the conflicting testimony. These are all the things that Robert McCulloch was detailing last night.
Yes. And conflicting testimony is something to be resolved by a jury who makes a determination of guilt and innocence. That is not something that should be resolved by a grand jury, who simply decides, as I said, whether or not there is evidence to charge.
And, in this context, again, the testimony about whether there was a fight and the magnitude of that fight, you know, really comes largely from the officer, and that testimony was almost completely unchallenged by the prosecutor in this.
This is the lightest cross-examination I have ever seen. I have not had a hearing where a client of mine testified where someone — where they faced that little challenge to the testimony they offered. And Darren Wilson…
Yes, well, Christina Swarns, I hate to interrupt you, but we now have Susan McGraugh in Saint Louis.
And I want to ask her about all of this.
As you have dug these this — this evidence that was presented, released by the grand jury, by the prosecutor, what is your sense? Did they make their case or did they overstep?
SUSAN MCGRAUGH, Saint Louis University:
I'm not sure they overstepped. I'm just not sure that they tried awfully hard to make their case.
Normally, these things are very guided and short and precise and they're obviously intended to come up with a certain result. We really don't see that here. You know, I wouldn't even call what I cross-examination. In fact, there was a lot of times when the prosecuting attorney appeared to be leading officer Wilson, you know, kind of pitching softballs, as it was.
So it certainly wasn't the type of rigorous testing of evidence or testimony that we normally see in a criminal case.
So if you were a member of this grand jury — and we discussed that this grand jury is made up of 12 people, three of them black, and the rest of them white, and you were presented with this — just this information, did they reach the correct conclusion based on what they knew?
You know, I'm sure they think they did, and I'm sure they did the best they can do, but you have to remember that they were hearing cases prior to this one. And those cases were run very, very differently than the one that they have been presented with. And it could be that, either consciously or subconsciously, they knew they needed to reach a different result because the process was so different.
Lacking cross-examination, among the things that were allowed to stand were the characterizations of Michael Brown as Hulk Hogan or as a demon that — and I want to go back to Christina Swarns on.
To what degree can you gauge whether that influences a jury, those kind of characterizations, lacking, as you pointed out, cross-examination?
You know, like, those kinds of characterizations which really do really echo in racial terms are extraordinarily damaging and they are extraordinarily influential and prejudicial in a jury proceeding.
Now, that's the kind of claim that a defense attorney would be objecting to, that kind of statement that a defense attorney would be objecting to, would be raising as a basis for a new trial or a new sentencing.
I mean, that is absolutely inflammatory and prejudicial. It shouldn't have been allowed to go to the jury unchallenged.
Susan McGraugh, given what we have seen here and what we heard Attorney General Holder say today, which he would continue with a thorough and vigorous investigation, what is left for the federal government to do?
Well, you know, they can see if there's any violation of federal law. Unfortunately, for people who are concerned about this verdict, that's going to be a hard case to make.
What do you mean when you say that, that the civil rights case can't be made or the civil lawsuit?
I'm not saying — I'm sorry.
I'm not saying it can't be made. I'm going to say that it's difficult to make, that it's a higher standard than some of the homicide charges that officer Wilson was facing. I don't think people who are hoping for this situation to be remedied can count on the Department of Justice stepping in and making a case against officer Wilson.
And what about the possibility of a civil suit? That's something we saw in the Rodney King case, for instance.
Absolutely. Those actions are all still open.
Nothing that's been done in the grand jury is going to affect the civil suit. In fact, some of the information garnered by the grand jury might be of use to Mr. Brown's attorneys as they go forward.
Professor Susan McGraugh at Saint Louis University and Christina Swarns of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, thank you both very much.
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