A Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict a policeman for the killing of Michael Brown illustrates the difficulty of making a case against officers in fatal shootings and points to the likelihood of a similar outcome for a federal civil rights probe of the case.
The panel concluded that the Aug. 9 shooting of the unarmed black 18-year-old was legally justified and that no criminal charges were warranted against Officer Darren Wilson. That outcome is by far the norm rather than the exception in investigations of police shootings because of latitude afforded law enforcement in using deadly force.
The Justice Department is pursuing a separate investigation into potential civil rights violations. But federal investigations of police misconduct face an even tougher legal standard, requiring proof that an officer willfully violated a victim’s civil rights. Testimony from Wilson that he felt threatened, and forensic evidence suggesting a fierce tussle between the two in the officer’s patrol car, almost certainly complicates any efforts to seek federal charges.
Under federal law, “you have to prove as a prosecutor that the officer knew at the moment that he pulled the trigger that he was using too much force, that he was violating the Constitution,” said Seth Rosenthal, a former Justice Department civil rights prosecutor.
The panel rejected all five possible charges against Wilson, making the Ferguson case the latest in a long line of police shooting investigations to affirm an officer’s right to use deadly force when he believes he’s at imminent physical harm. Even though it’s usually easy for prosecutors in other cases to secure an indictment, police shootings are an exception because of reluctance to second-guess an officer’s split-second decision.
Protests stretch across the country. People protesting the grand jury decision took to the streets in cities across the U.S. for a second day Tuesday, showing that the racially charged case has inflamed tensions thousands of miles from the predominantly black St. Louis suburb.
Peaceful demonstrators marched in Seattle and disrupted traffic in St. Louis and Cleveland. Rallies also formed in Michigan, Maine, Georgia and mid-Atlantic states.
For many, the shooting of Brown by Wilson recalled other troubling encounters with law enforcement. The refrain “hands up, don’t shoot” became a rallying cry over police killings nationwide.
Protesters disrupted downtown traffic for several hours in St. Louis by blocking major intersections, an interstate highway and a Mississippi River bridge connecting the city to Illinois.
Riot police arrested several demonstrators who sat in the middle of Interstate 44 near the Edward Jones Dome. They used pepper spray to disperse the crowd.
Demonstrators also swarmed the steps of the federal courthouse, overturning barricades while chanting, “You didn’t indict! We shall fight!”
Officer states his case. Wilson says he couldn’t have done anything differently in his confrontation with Brown to have prevented the 18-year-old’s shooting death.
Wilson made his first public statements Tuesday during an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. He offered details of the Aug. 9 shooting like those contained in his grand jury testimony, released a day earlier after it was decided he wouldn’t be indicted in the death.
Wilson says he felt like it was his duty to chase Brown after a confrontation at his police vehicle. When asked about witness accounts that Brown at one point turned toward Wilson and put his hands up, he responded “that would be incorrect.”
He told Stephanopoulos he has a clean conscience because “I know I did my job right.”
Brown’s family seeks federal charges. Attorneys for Michael Brown’s family vowed Tuesday to push for federal charges against the police officer who killed the unarmed 18-year-old.
Wilson, who has been on leave since the Aug. 9 shooting, had been with the Ferguson police force for less than three years. He told ABC that Brown’s shooting marked the first time he had fired his gun.
The Brown family attorneys said the grand jury process was rigged from the start to clear the officer, in the Aug. 9 shooting death of Brown. They criticized everything from the evidence the St. Louis County prosecutor presented to the jury to the way it was presented, as well as the timing of the announcement of the grand jury’s final decision.
“We said from the very beginning that the decision of this grand jury was going to be the direct reflection of the presentation of the evidence by the prosecutor’s office,” attorney Anthony Gray said. He suggested the county’s top prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, presented some testimony to discredit the process, including from witnesses who did not see the shooting.
They hope a federal civil rights investigation results in charges against Wilson.
Holder reacts to violence. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday he was “disappointed” by the violence in Ferguson that followed a grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson for killing Brown.
“It is clear, I think, that acts of violence threaten to drown out those who have legitimate voices, legitimate demonstrators,” Holder told reporters. “Those acts of violence cannot and will not be condoned.”
Holder said he was encouraged by some of the peaceful demonstrations in the suburban St. Louis city and by those protesters who discouraged others from rioting, calling them “heroes, in my mind.”
The attorney general said he has instructed his staff to work with leaders of the nonviolent protests to help root out and isolate anyone bent on destruction.