Ferguson prosecutor: Gag order shouldn’t be lifted for grand juror to discuss Darren Wilson case

Jason Sickles
Lawyers for St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch want a lawsuit by one of the Ferguson grand jurors dismissed. (AP Photo/File)

The St. Louis County prosecuting attorney wants a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit by a grand juror seeking to speak out about the secret proceedings that cleared former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, according to a motion filed late Monday.

As of Tuesday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel had not ruled on the request by prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s lawyers to dismiss the lawsuit.

“In this case, plaintiff is requesting the court to issue an injunction that would threaten the continued health and sound functioning of Missouri’s grand jury system,” the motion states. “Given the important state issues raised in this case, the court should abstain from exercising its jurisdiction over plaintiff’s claims.”

Michael Brown and former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. (Facebook)

A month ago, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit on behalf of the unnamed juror, alleging that McCulloch has wrongly implied that all 12 jurors believed that there was no evidence to support charging Wilson. The juror, identified in court papers as Grand Juror Doe, seeks the judge’s permission to speak publicly about the investigation — despite being sworn to secrecy and ordered to keep the panel’s deliberations and votes private.

Under Missouri law, it is a misdemeanor for a grand juror to disclose evidence or information about witnesses who appear before them.

Brown, who was black, was unarmed when he was fatally shot during a confrontation on Aug. 9, 2014, with Wilson, who is white. The shooting and lack of charges sparked days of violent unrest in the suburban St. Louis community and weeks of protests around the country.

When a grand jury doesn’t recommend charges, the testimony and evidence presented to a panel is usually kept private. But with the controversy surrounding the Ferguson case, McCulloch made the unique move to discuss in detail why the officer was cleared and to release all evidence — with identifying personal information redacted — to the public.

[Related: Ferguson prosecutor's planned visit divides Saint Louis University law school]

But Grand Juror Doe contends prosecutors gave the panel guidelines in a “muddled and untimely” manner and presented the evidence in a way that insinuated that Brown, not the officer, was the perpetrator. The 12-member grand jury’s vote did not have to be unanimous. In Missouri, a consensus of nine is needed to rule.

Grand Juror Doe’s suit states the Ferguson case is unique and presents an opportunity for the individual to be an advocate for grand jury reform and contribute to improving race relations.

The unnamed juror's suit invokes free speech rights and contends that the individual fears being charged for violating the state’s gag order on grand jury proceedings.

The motion to dismiss, prepared by McCulloch’s lawyers from the Missouri attorney general and St. Louis County counselor, call Grand Juror Doe’s fears of criminal prosecution by McCulloch “unfounded” and “speculative.”

[Related: Lawsuits: St. Louis County town jails are 'debtors prisons']

Grand Juror Doe “has not alleged that he wants to disclose any new evidence or reveal the names of any persons that have not already been identified,” states the motion, which contains a footnote explaining the use of the male pronoun to avoid confusion rather than indicate the plaintiff's gender, which is unknown.

But, if Grand Juror Doe did, “such information, especially as it relates to evidence and witnesses, is not Plaintiff’s to disclose, and would pose a clear and present danger to the persons whose identities remain unknown to the public,” according to the motion.

“Given that the Plaintiff cannot show that he has a right under the First Amendment to divulge evidence and witnesses that have not already been disclosed to the public, the Court should dismiss Plaintiff’s claims in this case,” the motion states.

McCulloch’s lawyers also argue that the federal court lacks jurisdiction in a state court matter.

Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, said the organization's lawyers expect the suit to move forward.

“These sorts of filings that attempt to prevent the court from reaching the merits of a case are not uncommon,” Mittman said in an emailed statement. “The goal of the ACLU remains to allow Grand Juror Doe the freedom to provide important information to the public and elected representatives, without punishment by the government.”

Jason Sickles is a reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).