Before the controversial Ferguson decision, the last time a potential indictment was in the national news was late September, when a grand jury failed to indict NASCAR driver Tony Stewart to stand trial for causing the death of fellow driver Kevin Ward. Stewart faced charges similar to, though not as severe (second degree and criminally negligent homicide), as officer Darren Wilson faced in Missouri. In failing to win indictments, these two cases are a rarity.
An indictment means that a grand jury is convinced the case before it should get a proper trial. That opportunity for a trial by jury is a deeply held American belief–a public trust, one might say. As a result, it’s uncommon that a predetermination is made that any case is not trial worthy. The FiveThirtyEight quotes a former New York state chief judge as once saying a prosecutor could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” In 2010, US attorneys prosecuted 162,000 cases and grand juries failed to indict in just 11 of them. Those are federal cases, where there may be a more rigorous standard for bringing a case to a grand jury. But the comments of the New York chief judge would indicate otherwise. (The FiveThirtyEight didn’t point to state or local statistics.) The Darren Wilson case in Ferguson is not the only one of its kind–ask Tony Stewart–but the result is extremely rare.