A grand jury could 'indict a ham sandwich', but apparently not a white police officer

The verdict on Michael Brown's death stunned America, but should have come as no surprise

In 1985, the New York Daily News quoted former Chief Judge Sol Wachtler as saying that if they so desired, a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to 'indict a ham sandwich'.

It doesn't seem like an awful lot has changed decades later, with Five Thirty Eight pointing out today that, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, of the 162,000 federal cases US attorneys prosecuted in 2010 (the most recent year data was released for), grand juries only declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

Here is a visual representation of those stats (indictments in grey, acquittals in red):


[Enlarged version]

Grand juries' overwhelming propensity to indict seems to diminish quite drastically when a police officer is involved however.

While it's important to stress that these figures aren't directly comparable with last night's grand jury verdict in St Louis, where officer Darren Wilson was not charged for shooting dead unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, as it was heard in state court rather than federal, the ratio is stark nonetheless.

The Houston Chronicle recently found that "police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings" in major cities in recent years, while in Harris County, Texas, a grand jury hasn't indicted a Houston police officer since 2004. In Dallas 81 shootings came before grand juries between 2008 and 2012, and just one returned an indictment.

As many have been bemoaning on social media this morning, the most grim element of the Ferguson situation is how inevitable it was.