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Tension Builds As Ferguson, Mo., Waits For Grand Jury Decision


Here's what we know about the investigation of a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. We know a grand jury is investigating the killing of the unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown last August.


We know there's much concern about what the grand jury will decide. In fact, Missouri's governor has declared a state of emergency. We do not know how that grand jury will judge the evidence against Officer Darren Wilson.

MONTAGNE: But it's possible to get a sense of the task they face. The grand jury is considering the facts in a case that has held much of the country's attention for months. NPR's Martin Kaste takes us through that case.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The grand jury in St. Louis has been considering this case since late August. And all they're trying to decide is whether Officer Wilson should be charged. Still, there are reasons that these things take a while.

DAVID KLINGER: What happens is it's an educational situation first.

KASTE: David Klinger is a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri St. Louis. He's also a former cop, an expert on police use of force and he's been called as a witness for similar cases. He says the civilians on a grand jury often have to learn some basics first.

KLINGER: What does the law say about the use of deadly force? What are police trained about when they're allowed to use their firearms? - and then, information about the incident so that the grand jurors can come to a determination about whether the officer's behavior concorded with the law in that state.

KASTE: This grand jury is trying to untangle the competing versions of what happened on that street in Ferguson on August 9, whether Michael Brown grappled with Officer Wilson and charged at him or whether Brown was shot while he was trying to surrender. They've heard from eyewitnesses, and they've also considered physical evidence.

KLINGER: There is blood on Officer Wilson's uniform. And there is blood on Officer Wilson's gun. What type of blood is that? And what I mean - is it a smear? Are they large drops? Are they small drops? Is it indicative of a back spatter? - all sorts of stuff that will be explained to the grand jurors by either the medical examiner or a blood splatter expert.

KASTE: And that physical evidence may determine whether the grand jury believes Wilson's version, that Brown was shot while he was trying to grab at the cop's gun.

KLINGER: If it is consistent with what he's saying, then they would probably say, you know what? His story - we're going to believe him.

KASTE: Typically, police officers get the benefit of the doubt. If they had a reasonable fear of harm, they're usually not prosecuted for pulling the trigger. But this is not a typical situation.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hands up. Don't shoot. Hands up. Don't shoot. Hands up. Don't shoot.

KASTE: The protesters decided back in August that Officer Wilson was in the wrong. And if he's not indicted, there are fears of more civil unrest. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard just in case. Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson says, just imagine what it's like being on that grand jury.

LAURIE LEVENSON: It's a terrible situation, to have to decide whether to bring charges when you sort of are calling in the National Guard.

KASTE: It may seem tempting to just go ahead and charge Wilson with murder or a lesser crime. After all, he'd still get his day in court. Prosecutors have a lot of influence over grand juries. And they can usually get the indictment they want. But Levenson says that would be a mistake if the case against Wilson is weak.

LEVENSON: In the long run, it would do more harm than good to just bring charges and then have it be a train wreck at trial.

KASTE: It's also important to point out that many of the protesters don't trust the prosecutor here, Robert McCulloch, because his father was a police officer killed in the line of duty by a black man. He's insisted that he can be fair. But he's also stressed that this is going to be the grand jury's decision, not his. And if the grand jury votes not to indict Officer Wilson, McCulloch says he'll release transcripts and audio recordings of the proceedings. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.

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