KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A federal appeals court ruled today that a judge wrongly tossed a lawsuit by a woman wanting to speak publicly about her time on the grand jury that declined to indict the Ferguson police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black man.
The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the lawsuit by the woman identified only as “Grand Juror Doe.”
The 8th Circuit concluded U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel, who threw out the lawsuit in May last year, should have put that case on hold until a Missouri court decides the constitutionality of a state law barring grand jurors from publicly discussing the secret proceedings.
Sippel sided with lawyers for St. Louis County in ruling that the former grand juror needed to go to a state court for permission to talk publicly.
The lawsuits claim Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch mischaracterized the jury’s findings when he announced in November 2014 that the panel declined to indict Ferguson officer Darren Wilson in the death three months earlier of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Wilson later resigned.
That shooting — and the grand jury’s clearing of Wilson — fueled often-violent protests and propelled the “Black Lives Matter” movement and debate over police treatment of minorities.
Grand Juror Doe’s lawsuits, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, allege McCulloch wrongly implied that all 12 jurors believed there was no support for any charges. Under Missouri law, an indictment requires agreement by nine of the panel’s dozen members; grand jurors are sworn to secrecy under the threat of contempt or other charges.
Grand Juror Doe took that oath twice — first when the grand jury convened in May 2014, then again four months later when her term was extended to allow the panel to consider evidence and testimony related to Brown’s death.
The U.S. Justice Department ultimately concluded that evidence backed Wilson’s claim that he shot Brown in self-defense after Brown first tried to grab the officer’s gun during a struggle through the window of Wilson’s police vehicle, then came toward him threateningly after briefly running away.
Grand Juror Doe has insisted her experiences on the panel — it met on 25 days over three months, hearing more than 70 hours of testimony from about 60 witnesses — “could aid in educating the public about how grand juries function” and help advocate for changing how grand juries are conducted in Missouri. The secretive process came under added scrutiny after the Ferguson case.
A message left today with a McCulloch spokesman, Ed Magee, was not immediately returned.