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A Conversation about Ferguson

December 4, 2014 —

Following a grand jury’s decision not to indict Missouri police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal August shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, law scholars, deans and students gathered at Georgetown Law on December 3 for a “Conversation about Ferguson.” 

Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor, who introduced the event, was gratified to see the large, standing-room-only crowd. “We wanted to have a ‘town hall’ to look at the grand jury decision, to look at Ferguson from a number of different perspectives and also to get your thoughts,” he said. 

Professor Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, noted that out of 162,000 cases in the federal grand jury system in 2010, indictments were brought in all but 11 of those cases. “Almost everything was different about the Ferguson grand jury,” Butler said. “It was more like a trial than a grand jury proceeding.”

Professors on the panel used the first hour of the event to teach: Professor Abbe Smith demonstrated how a defense lawyer might counsel a client in a grand jury proceeding, Georgetown University history Professor Marcia Chatelain and Professor Anthony Cook provided a racial and historical perspective of the events in Ferguson, and Professor Louis Michael Seidman helped explore questions of poverty and inequality in America.

Butler gave his version of a prosecutor’s impassioned speech to the crowd (the “grand jury”) regarding the evidence in the case. “All you have to decide is whether this case is worthy of taking to a jury of his peers. In the name of a dead 18-year-old teenager … the state respectfully recommends that you return an indictment.”  

In the off-the-record discussion that followed, students followed up with questions regarding race, poverty and inequality; the need to transform the criminal justice system; the use of cameras to film police actions; how law students can engage with the Washington, D.C., community; and how Americans can stop fear of others from being a justification for police actions.

“The question before us is whether or not Ferguson is a moment … and can be transformed into a movement,” Cook said.

The event was sponsored by the Office of the Dean, the Student Life and Diversity Committee, the Black Law Students Association and the National Lawyers Guild. 

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