11/25/2014 08:45 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

Ferguson: No Shortcuts to Justice

Pool via Getty Images

Shortcuts almost always end up creating more problems than they solve. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch took a shortcut through Ferguson. The results have been catastrophic.

McCulloch's shortcut involved using a grand jury to do the job of a trial jury. Grand juries are typically used to determine whether the prosecution has enough evidence to justify proceeding to trial. Grand juries are not used, typically, to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused. This is what happened in Ferguson. This is why people are angry.

Grand juries are not typically required to meet the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt," the standard of proof required for a guilty verdict in a jury trial. Typically, grand juries are convened so they may determine whether a reasonable jury could potentially conclude that a crime had been committed. The legal question is simple: Could a reasonable person look at the facts of the case and conclude that the charges against the defendant might have merit? Should these charges be dismissed, or do they require more deliberate consideration?

Determinations of guilt or innocence are supposed to be made at a public trial, not in a secret conclave. Evidence is supposed to be presented in an open courtroom over the course of the proceedings, not in a bulk dump after a verdict has already been reached. It is supposed to be the defendant who is on trial, not the memory of the deceased victim.

Ferguson is burning because many people believe that the charges against Officer Darren Wilson were credible enough to justify a trial. Cynics will say that a trial would only have delayed the inevitable violent protests that would have occurred when a jury returned a verdict of "not guilty." That may be true, depending on whether people felt that the proceedings were fair and that justice had been served. Because of McCulloch's shortcut, we will never know. We do know that not everyone who disagrees with the conclusion of the grand jury is involved in the rioting. Many, like the family of Michael Brown, are "profoundly disappointed" with the grand jury's failure to bring an indictment, yet have chosen to express their disappointment by using non-violent means. Perhaps a public trial would have diffused these tensions and resulted in less violence and a sense of legitimate justice.

Police officers face enormous risks every day. Last year, 33 officers died in the line of duty. Officer Darren Wilson may have believed that he was about to become another dead cop. He may have acted in what he believed was self-defense. That would have been a legitimate legal defense in what would have undoubtedly been an extremely emotional trial.

But the determination of whether those fears and the ultimate killing of Michael Brown were justified should have been made by a jury, based on evidence, vigorously defended and just as vigorously prosecuted. This process was supplanted by a prosecutor whose press conference looked more like that of a winning defense attorney and a grand jury that overstepped its authority.

The president and others have rightly reminded us that we are a nation of laws. But laws are supported by procedures. In the case of Darren Wilson, those procedures were broken. Rather than follow procedure, the prosecutor's office tried to take a shortcut to justice, circumventing the trial process and going directly to a verdict.

As you drive through St. Louis, there well may be a shortcut to the community of Ferguson.

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to justice.

Bob Seay is the Publisher of