This Mistake Skewed The Law In Darren Wilson’s Favor

CREDIT: AP Images/Dylan Petrohilos

Presenting reams of evidence that could benefit the defense of Ferguson officer Darren Wilson wasn’t the only thing St. Louis County prosecutors did to bolster Wilson’s case for escaping trial.

Prosecutors also made a mistake in the grand jury instructions that gave jurors a false impression about the law and provided Wilson with significantly more legal cover for the deadly shooting of Michael Brown than the law actually provides, according to a review of the transcript by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell.

Assistant District Attorney Kathi Alizadeh instructed grand jurors on how to decide the case based on a statute that was invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court two decades ago. As O’Donnell points out, that statute had not been valid for the entirety of Alizadeh’s legal career. That statute said that officers can use any force they deem necessary to achieve the arrest of a fleeing suspect. It does not preclude deadly force ,saying only that officers are “justified in the use of such physical force as he or she reasonably believes is immediately necessary to effect the arrest or to prevent the escape from custody.”

The U.S. Supreme Court nixed this law and others like it when it held in the 1985 case of Tennessee v. Garner that police officers could not use deadly force simply because a suspect was fleeing. They could only do so if that suspect also threatened the lives of others. A 1979 Missouri statute was never changed.

Alizadeh realized her mistake three months after she initially presented the statute to the grand jurors and disclosed the error. But at least according to the transcript, she never told them what exactly she did wrong or what had changed. She simply told the jurors to “fold in half” the paper they had been referencing for three months and gave them a new one with different instructions.

As Georgetown adjunct law professor and legal analyst Kenneth Jost explained on his blog, the grand jurors “had in mind the prosecutors’ mistake of law that completely excused Wilson” as they listened to Wilson’s testimony. Jost concedes that this mistake was one of only a host of legal factors that may have contributed to the grand jurors’ decision-making. In fact, as ThinkProgress noted this week, it may be societal standards of “reasonableness” that dictated the outcome this case more than any particular law. But as Jost points out, “Asking the grand jurors three months later to ignore the mistake was surely a fruitless attempt to unring the bell.”

Jury instructions have played a key role in several prominent deadly force cases. In the trials of both George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon Martin, and Michael Dunn for killing Jordan Davis, Stand Your Ground provisions that had not been a focus during the trial made their way into the jury instructions, the written documents jurors rely upon to understand the law during their decision-making. (Michael Dunn was initially acquitted by a jury, but convicted on retrial and sentenced to life in prison).