Ferguson Grand Juror Files Lawsuit Against Missouri Gag Order

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jan 6, 2015

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A grand juror who was part of the group that decided not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown has filed a lawsuit requesting the right to speak publically about the experience.  Under Missouri law it is a misdemeanor to discuss grand jury proceedings, but the recently filed lawsuit claims that such a restriction is a violation of the First Amendment right to speak freely about the experience and asks a Missouri federal court to prevent the state from prosecuting any release of information regarding the grand jury process.

Ferguson Grand Juror Files Lawsuit

In the immediate aftermath of the controversial, and heavily protested, Ferguson grand jury decision to not indict Officer Wilson the district attorney presenting the case released volumes of evidence that was presented to jurors during the proceedings.  In an effort to ensure the process was transparent, District Attorney Robert McCulloch made public several hundred pages of witness statements, forensic expert analysis, and physical evidence that were used by grand jurors in their decision to not indict the officer for Michael Brown’s death.  Protestors and dissenters across the country were unsatisfied with the transparency, and have accused McCulloch of taking unusual procedural steps that stacked the deck in favor of Wilson.

The grand juror’s complaint, filed by Grand Juror Doe, expresses hope that by making public the details of the proceedings from a grand juror’s point of view, the residents of Ferguson, and the country, can better understand how the evidence was presented and what factors contributed to the grand jury’s decision.  While Missouri legal tradition keeps the grand jury proceedings secret, the complaint points out that the Supreme Court has not held such secrecy to be ironclad in the face of a First Amendment challenge, instead forcing courts to “balance the asserted First Amendment rights against the state’s interests in preserving the confidentiality of its grand jury proceedings.”

In this case, Grand Juror Doe argues that the state of Missouri’s interests in keeping grand jury proceedings secret are not sufficient to trump the interests of free speech that are being denied.

Grand Juror Lawsuit Looks to Share Different Perspective

Throughout the complaint, Grand Juror Doe, whose grand jury tenure reviewed a number of other cases in addition to Officer Wilson’s, asserts that the process differed significantly when McCulloch presented evidence in the Michael Brown shooting case.  Notably, the lawsuit alleges that McCulloch was less clear on how the jurors were to apply the facts, and focused more energy on the conduct of the victim than in other grand jury cases – allegations that seem to lend support opposition complaints about how the Ferguson DA office managed the Wilson investigation and prosecution.

Going further, Grand Juror Doe claims that “the current information available about the grand jurors’ views is not entirely accurate — especially the implication that all grand jurors believed that there was no support for any charges … Moreover, the public characterization of the grand jurors’ view of witnesses and evidence does not accord with Plaintiff’s own.”  This statement and others throughout the complaint suggests the decision to not indict Officer Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown was not unanimous, and the lawsuit argues that dissent to McCulloch’s public statements regarding the process should be made available without fear of criminal prosecution.

Alleging that McCulloch’s statements following the decision to not indict and the evidence released did not accurately encapsulate the perspective of Grand Juror Doe or the reality of the grand jury proceedings, the lawsuit argues that by allowing the Plaintiff to share their experience the public could be better educated about how grand juries operate generally, and how the Officer Wilson decision was made.

Plaintiff in Grand Juror Lawsuit Seeks to Aid Public

A recurring theme throughout the Plaintiff’s complaint is the desire to educate the public about the Darren Wilson grand jury process, and “add to the public debate” information about how grand juries function.  The benefits of a better educated public and fully transparent grand jury process, the complaint argues, outweigh the arguably minimal concerns that doing so would put McCulloch, Officer Wilson, or any witnesses at risk of public backlash, or influence the ability of Missouri prosecutors to conduct grand jury proceedings in the future.

With the state’s interest in grand jury secrecy arguably insufficient to outweigh the benefits of Grand Juror Doe’s public revelation of the Officer Wilson proceedings, the complaint concludes that Missouri cannot justify suppressing the Plaintiff’s right to free speech.  The First Amendment Right to Free Speech is heavily protected, and, as the lawsuit points out, the Supreme Court has already rejected a state law that prohibits grand jury witnesses from revealing their experience. Although McCulloch’s office has not yet responded to the complaint, the case against ongoing secrecy of the Wilson grand jury proceedings seems compelling and it would be unsurprising if Grand Juror Doe is successful in the request.


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