In the realm of criminal law, what we mainly mean by the word “justice” is a process, not an outcome. We have agreed-upon rules that we try, to the best of our imperfect ability, to pursue in an impartial fashion rather than in a way oriented toward some particular desired outcome. In the case of Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson, whose shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown touched off protests and rioting in the Saint Louis suburb, that process includes an internal police-department investigation and the consideration of a grand jury entrusted with determining whether the officer committed a crime when he shot the young man. But Missouri governor Jay Nixon is taking something like the Red Queen approach to justice: sentence first, trial later.
Governor Nixon, a Democrat, has called for a “vigorous prosecution” of Officer Wilson, who has not been charged with a crime and whose case has not yet been disposed by a grand jury. The evidence that will help to determine the probity or criminality of his actions has not yet been considered in full. Calling for a “vigorous prosecution” of a police officer before the facts of the case are known is grossly irresponsible. If the investigation determines that a crime has been committed, then a vigorous prosecution is of course called for. But that has not been determined at this point.
The protesters in Ferguson complain that they are denied justice, and some have complained that they do not trust the authorities to fully and fairly investigate the Brown shooting — that, with investigators holding a bias in favor of police, the conclusion is foregone. If that is the case, then they are right to protest it. But the solution to a biased system of justice is not the introduction of more bias. The solution to a foregone conclusion in favor of the police is not a foregone conclusion hostile to them. Justice for Michael Brown must also be justice for Darren Wilson, or it isn’t justice at all.
In addition to calling for the prosecution of Officer Wilson, Governor Nixon has called down the wrath of the U.S. Department of Justice, which is engaged in a civil-rights investigation of the matter. Such investigations increasingly are used as a federal double-jeopardy strategy when local results are politically distasteful. In any case, both the local and the federal investigations should be allowed to run their course without politicians’ grandstanding about them or attempting to influence their outcomes.
Whether Officer Wilson is as guilty as sin or entirely blameless, the only means of achieving justice is a fair, transparent, criminal-justice process insulated from political interference by the likes of Governor Nixon. If the criminal-justice process is reduced to being merely another contest of political blood sport, then we can expect to see more Fergusons, not fewer.
If there is reason to believe that the police and county prosecutors are not competent or reliable, and that their investigations are likely to be faulty or biased, then that case should be made in forthright and transparent public manner, and a reasonable remedy, such as oversight of the investigation by state-level authorities, should be implemented. But to simply declare that a crime has been committed when that has not been determined, and then to call for a vigorous prosecution of that hypothetical crime, corrodes the basic apparatus that we rely upon to adjudicate these matters.
Governor Nixon’s attempt to impose his own agenda on the criminal-justice process is destructive and reckless. He should do his job and let the members of the grand jury do theirs.