Glen Ford writes in Black Agenda Report:
A Black People’s Grand Jury in St. Louis, Missouri, this weekend delivered a “true bill of indictment” for first degree murder against former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Black teenager Michael Brown. Black people “can and must take matters into our own hands,” said Omali Yeshitela, one of four prosecutors that presented evidence[.]
The 12 jurors, all of them from greater St. Louis, spent January 3rd and 4th reviewing some of the same evidence presented by county prosecutor Bob McCulloch to the mostly white grand jury that failed to indict Wilson, in November.
One point that this story highlights is an obvious one: The very different outcomes of the Black People’s grand jury and the state’s official grand jury is a testimony to the power of those convening the jury and controlling the proceedings to determine the jury’s decisions.
A more interesting point is that one possible application of sortition, one that doesn’t require official recognition, is as a way to elicit the public’s informed view about issues of high importance and visibility. A jury examining such an issue – properly constituted as a representative sample of the public, and properly organized so that it has the power to conduct its own business independent of outside influence – could become a focal point for the public’s attention and garner popular support and confidence. In this way the jury’s decisions – whether or not it has official mandate – would carry significant political power and would justify the time and effort required by the jurists to examine the issue in some depth.
Putting in place such a process would require the establishment of an administrating institution with enough resources to convene the juries and publicize the proceedings and the decisions. Some seed money would be needed at the outset but once widespread attention to the institution is garnered, any further funds could be raised through contributions from the public. The administrating institution would have to be organized in a way that would guarantee political independence and inspire public confidence. This can be done by having the authority of the institution restricted to technical matters, while delegating all political matters to the allotted jurists.
The main difficulty, in my opinion, would be selecting issues that on the one hand would be important and visible and whose scope on the other hand is restricted so that the time and effort required to understand them are acceptable for the average person. This requirement of limited scope is quite severe unless membership on the jury is the main occupation of the jurists for a period of time measured in months, which is not realistic for non-official bodies. The case Ford discuses is of one type of situations that could meet these criteria – deciding whether to issue indictments in high profile cases where there is a conflict of interest for the professionals of the legal system. This would include, in addition to cases of people killed by police officers, whistleblower cases such as the Wikileaks and Manning cases, and cases with potential politically powerful criminals, such as the issue of torture by the CIA and the US military and banking fraud cases associated with the housing prices bubble in the US of the previous decade.