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Saturday, December 9, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, December 9, 2023 | Back issues
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Michael Brown Juror’s Federal Claims Revived

ST. LOUIS (CN) — The Eighth Circuit on Monday revived claims from a woman who served on the Michael Brown grand jury who wants to speak out about her experience.

The woman, known only as Jane Doe in court papers, says she wants to speak out to correct the implication that the jury unanimously decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot Brown. She also claims prosecutors presented evidence and explained the law differently to the grand jury in the Brown investigation than they had in other cases.

Missouri law disallows grand jurors from speaking out about how they or any other jurors voted, the opinions expressed by grand jurors during deliberations or any evidence presented to the grand jury. Doe says she took two oaths of secrecy and such a disclosure could result in misdemeanor charges being filed against her.

Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot by Wilson in August 2014. The shooting sparked months of often violent protests and brought the issues of racism and excessive force by police officers into the national conversation.

The Brown grand jury's no true bill finding in favor of Wilson on Nov. 24, 2014, sparked a new wave of violent protests in Ferguson, Mo., where the shooting took place. Dozens of buildings burned that night.

Doe filed a lawsuit against St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch in federal court in January 2015, claiming Missouri's grand jury secrecy laws violate her right to free speech.

In an unusual move, according to the Eighth Circuit, the federal court cited the case of Railroad Commission of Texas vs. Pullman Co. as reason to dismiss the case. According to the Eighth Circuit, lawsuits are typically stayed and not dismissed under Pullman.

Doe then filed her complaint in state court and filed a motion in federal court that its decision be altered or amended so she could pursue her federal claims if her claims in state court are successful.

"Despite the seeming application of the Pullman doctrine in its previous order, the district court stated in its order denying Doe's motion to alter or amend judgment that it had dismissed the case under the abstention doctrine set forth in Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943), 'a feature of which is outright dismissal of the complaint by the federal court,'" according to the Eighth Circuit. "The district court thus instructed Doe to pursue all of her claims in state court."

Doe appealed, arguing the dismissal under Burford was improper. A three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit agreed.

"'Burford abstention applies when a state has established a complex regulatory scheme supervised by state courts and serving important state interests, and when resolution of the case demands specialized knowledge and the application of complicated state laws.' Doe's lawsuit does not involve any complex regulatory scheme, nor does it demand the delicate balancing of state interests typically found in Burford abstention cases," Judge Roger L. Wollman wrote. "Moreover, although the Missouri statutes are not without ambiguity, they also are not particularly complicated. Doe's lawsuit simply does not implicate the principles underlying Burford abstention, for 'it does not demand significant familiarity with, and will not disrupt state resolution of, distinctively local regulatory facts or policies.'"

The Eighth Circuit did find the court was correct in abstaining under Burford. The case has been sent back to federal court for further proceedings once Doe's state claims have been resolved.

Judges Duane Benton and Bobby E. Shepherd concurred.

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