Jaeah is a former reporter at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Wired, Christian Science Monitor,Global Post,Huffington Post,Talking Points Memo, and Grist. She tweets at @jaeahjlee.
Where the accounts of Darren Wilson and witnesses don't add up.
Jaeah Lee and AJ VicensNov. 26, 2014 11:49 PM
Since the St. Louis County prosecutor's office released a trove of documents and evidence reviewed by the grand jury that decided to not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, there have been numerous reports pointing out the discrepancies between Wilson's and various witness accounts of what happened on the day that Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. While the grand jury has put an end to the state's case against Wilson, questions about witness accounts could still sway the outcome of the Justice Department's ongoing investigation. The Washington Post, Vox, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, PBS, and the Wall Street Journal have reported on these different accounts in further detail, especially the differences between the testimonies of Wilson and Dorian Johnson, a friend who was with Brown when Wilson approached them. We matched those accounts up with McCulloch's statement during his announcement of the grand jury decision. Here are five key discrepancies:
1. What happened during Wilson's initial encounter with Brown and Dorian Johnson?
Prosecutor Robert McCulloch: Wilson saw Brown and Johnson in the street, slowed down and told them to get on the sidewalk, and words were exchanged.
Darren Wilson: Wilson saw Brown and Dorian Johnson walking in the middle of the road. He told Johnson and Brown to get on the sidewalk. He noticed Brown was holding Cigarillos and remembered the report about the theft.
Dorian Johnson: Brown stole the Cigarillos from the Ferguson Market and then the two of them were walking toward their apartments as Wilson passed. Wilson told them to "Get the fuck on the sidewalk."
2. How did the situation escalate?
McCulloch: Wilson reverses his car at an angle, blocking traffic and Brown and Johnson's path. Wilson and Brown get into an altercation, with Wilson still in the car and Brown standing at the driver's window.
Wilson: After Wilson told Brown and Johnson to get on the sidewalk, he says he heard Brown respond "fuck what you have to say." He backed the car up to contain them, and asks Brown to come over to the car. He starts to get out of the car and Brown slams the door shut and says "what the fuck are you going to do about it."
Johnson: Johnson says neither he nor Brown said a word and Wilson reversed his car unexpectedly, then opened his door and hit both him and Brown, and the door bounced back closed. Wilson then grabbed Brown by the shirt around his neck.
3. What exactly happened during Wilson and Brown's "tussle"?
McCulloch: McCulloch says witness statements were inconsistent, with some saying Brown was never in the car at all, and others saying Brown was punching Wilson, some saying they were wrestling, and another saying that it was a tug-of-war. Two shots are fired during the altercation.
Wilson: After getting the door slammed on him, Wilson told Brown to "get the fuck back," and tried to use the door to push him. Brown shut it again, and Brown then came "in my vehicle." Brown punched Wilson. Wilson had one hand on his gun and tried to fire twice. Brown reached for Wilson's gun. The gun goes off twice, and one bullet hits the door.
Johnson: Johnson says that Wilson reached his hand out of his car window and grabbed Brown's shirt by his neck. A "tug of war" ensued with Brown trying to escape Wilson's grip, but Brown's hands never entered the car. After hearing the first gun shot, Johnson noticed blood on Brown, then turned and ran away. Brown followed behind him.
4. Did Wilson shoot at Brown and Johnson as they ran away?
McCulloch: McCulloch again says witness statements were inconsistent, with claims ranging from Wilson firing from the car, firing at Brown's back as he was running, and others saying Wilson didn't fire until Brown turned around and came back toward Wilson.
Wilson: Brown begins to run from Wilson after two shots were fired from the car. Brown runs but then turns around, and won't comply with demands to get on the ground. Wilson says he didn't open fire while Brown and Johnson ran away.
Johnson: Johnson hid behind a car, and watched as Brown ran past him and Wilson followed. Wilson opens fire while Brown is still running, at which point Brown stops and turns around. (Witness Piaget Crenshaw has told CNN Wilson shot as Brown ran away, adding that one bullet struck the building she was standing in. Another witness told investigators Wilson shot at Brown as he ran away.)
5.What was Brown doing when Wilson shot him?
McCulloch: McCulloch says witness accounts differ on whether Brown's hands were up when he was facing Brown after turning around. Some say Brown didn't move at all before Wilson shot him, others say he was in "full charge." McCulloch stressed that several witnesses' stories changed over the course of multiple interviews with authorities.
Wilson: Brown initially runs away but then turns around, and won't comply with Wilson's demands to get on the ground. Brown appears to charge toward Wilson. Brown put his hand at his waistband. Wilson opens fire.
Johnson: When Brown turned around to face Wilson, Brown's hands were up, one higher than the other. His hands were nowhere near his waist. Brown appeared to try and tell Wilson that he didn't have a gun, starting to take a step forward. Before Brown could complete his sentence, Wilson shot him several more times. (Crenshaw told CNN that after Brown turned around, he barely moved toward Wilson and that his hands were up. "They were just slowly going up, it probably didn't even have a chance to get all the way up there before he was struck.")
PBS Newshour analyzed more than 500 pages of witness testimony and compared them to Wilson's statements. Their graphic shows 16 witnesses testified that Brown put his hands up when fired upon:
Read the full testimony and other evidence just released by the St. Louis County Prosecutor's Office
Jaeah Lee and AJ VicensNov. 25, 2014 1:16 AM
Here is Darren Wilson's testimony before the St. Louis County grand jury (St. Louis Public Radio has uploaded documents, here), starting on page 195. (His account of his encounter with Michael Brown begins on page 206.) Follow our coverage on what's happening in Ferguson, and how the grand jury decision fits a longstanding pattern in the St. Louis area.
Wilson at a City Council meeting in February 2014.
Grand jury decides not to indict: The grand jury reviewing Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson's case in St. Louis County announced on Monday night that Wilson will not be charged in the shooting death of Michael Brown. The decision came more than three months after Wilson shot and killed Brown, the unarmed black teenager whose death on August 9 triggered weeks of protests that included sporadic violence and looting.
Twelve jurors—nine whites and three African Americans—reviewed Wilson's case. Their decision continues a long-running pattern of police officers involved in fatal shootings going unprosecuted.
Brown family issues statement: Mike Brown's parents released a statement following the grand jury decision asking protesters keep their actions peaceful:
Restricted air space: The Federal Aviation Administration confirms to Mother Jones that it restricted air space over Ferguson at 10:15 p.m. local time "due to gunfire." The resrtiction was in effect from the surface to 3,000 feet above sea level (about 2,500 feet off the ground), so that's why some news feeds were still working above the area.
President Obama reacts: Shortly after 10pm Eastern time, the president spoke, urging a peaceful response to the news. "Michael Brown's parents have lost more than anyone. We should be honoring their wishes."
Attorney General issues statement: Attorney General Eric Holder has released the following statement, saying the federal investigation into the shooting is still ongoing. (Read more about the Department of Justice's investigation here):
Since 2004, St. Louis County police officers have killed people in at least 14 cases. Few faced grand juries, and none was charged.
Jaeah LeeNov. 24, 2014 10:27 PM
Wilson at a City Council meeting in February 2014; a photo of Michael Brown displayed at his funeral on August 25, 2014
After weeks of rising tension in Ferguson and the broader St. Louis region, the St. Louis County grand jury reviewing the death of Michael Brown has decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Brown on August 9. Reported leaks during the grand jury proceedings suggested there would be no indictment—and that outcome fits a long-standing pattern. Few police officers who shoot and kill citizens in St. Louis have been investigated by a grand jury, let alone charged by one, according to data from city and county prosecutors.
More MoJo coverage of the Michael Brown police shooting
Between 2004 and 2014, there have been 14 fatal officer-involved shootings committed by St. Louis County PD officers alone, according to police data collected by David Klinger, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. That does not include fatal shootings by Ferguson police or by officers from various other law enforcement agencies within the county. Many officer-involved fatalities likely were not subject to grand jury investigations because they were deemed justified by police internal affairs or the local prosecutor's office, Klinger says. Since 2000, only four cases in all of St. Louis County, including Wilson's, have been investigated by a grand jury, according to a spokesperson for St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch's office. McCulloch's office declined to provide details to Mother Jones on the three other cases, which it says are closed.
In September, Heather Cole of Missouri Lawyers Weekly used news reports to identify five grand jury investigations of officer-involved fatalities prior to Wilson's that took place during McCulloch's tenure, which began in 1991.As with Wilson's case, none led to an indictment:
Statistics from the City of St. Louis paint a similar picture: A total of 39 people were fatally shot by police officers between 2003 and 2012; according to the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's office, only one police officer has been indicted in such a case since 2000, and that officer was acquitted.
Roger Goldman, an expert on criminal procedure and constitutional law at the Saint Louis University School of Law, says that a long-standing Missouri statute gives police officers wide latitude to shoot to kill. The law states they are justified in doing so if they "reasonably believe" their target "has committed or attempted to commit a felony" and deadly force is "immediately necessary to effect the arrest." According to Goldman, the existence of this law—despite a 1985 Supreme Court ruling suggesting it may be unconstitutional—is one reason why "it's particularly difficult to get grand juries to indict or prosecutors to even take the case to the grand jury in the first place."
But with a case like Wilson's, weeks of high-profile public protests likely pressured the prosecutor's office to present a case to a grand jury, says Delores Jones-Brown, a law professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "This way the prosecutor cannot be accused of having made a unilateral biased decision." Still, the prosecutor has a lot of sway in how a case is presented to the grand jury, she noted.
Prior to the decision in Wilson's case, McCulloch said he would seek to release transcripts and audio from the grand jury investigation if it resulted in no indictment for Wilson. The documents have since been released.