Originally posted at The New York Times.
Offering the most definitive account yet of the shooting of an unarmed black teenager that stirred racially charged protests across the country, the Justice Department has cleared a Ferguson, MO police officer of civil rights violations in the death last August of Michael Brown.
In an 86-page report released Wednesday that detailed and evaluated the testimony of more than 40 witnesses, the Justice Department largely corroborated or found little credible evidence to contradict the account of the officer, Darren Wilson, who is white.
Versions of events that sharply conflicted with Mr. Wilson’s were largely inconsistent with forensic evidence or with the witnesses’ previous statements, the report said. And in some cases, witnesses whose accounts supported Mr. Wilson said they had been afraid to come forth or tell the truth because they feared reprisals from the enraged community.
The decision ended a lengthy investigation into the shooting in August, in which Mr. Wilson killed Mr. Brown in the street as he tried to stop the teenager for a possible theft of some cigarillos from a convenience store. Several witnesses said Mr. Brown, 18, had his hands up in surrender when he died, leading to violent clashes in Ferguson and nationwide protest featuring chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
In a scathing report released Wednesday, the Justice Department concluded that the Ferguson Police Department had been routinely violating the constitutional rights of its black residents.
But federal agents and civil rights prosecutors rejected that story, just as a state grand jury did in November when it decided not to indict Mr. Wilson. The former officer, who left the Ferguson Police Department late last year, said that Mr. Brown had leaned into his patrol car, punched him, reached for his gun, and then after running away, turned and charged at him, making Mr. Wilson fear for his life.
“There is no evidence upon which prosecutors can rely to disprove Wilson’s stated subjective belief that he feared for his safety,” the report said. At the same time, it concluded that the witnesses who said that Mr. Brown was surrendering were not credible.
“Those witness accounts stating that Brown never moved back toward Wilson could not be relied upon in a prosecution because their accounts cannot be reconciled with the DNA bloodstain evidence and other credible witness accounts.”
Civil rights charges represented a difficult hurdle for prosecutors to clear. The law requires prosecutors to prove that Mr. Wilson willfully violated Mr. Brown’s civil rights when he shot him. Courts have given officers wide latitude when deciding when to use deadly force if they think their lives are in danger.
In a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called the report “fair and rigorous from the start,” saying it had been conducted independently from the investigation by the local police and had included the canvassing of more than 300 residences to locate additional witnesses. “The facts do not support the filing of criminal charges against Officer Darren Wilson in this case,” Mr. Holder said. For those who feel otherwise, he said, “I urge you to read this report in full.”
According to the report, Mr. Brown had just left the convenience store and was walking with a friend in the middle of a street when Officer Wilson, thinking they might be the suspects in the robbery, blocked their way with his patrol vehicle. After a scuffle in which Mr. Brown reached inside the car, punched Mr. Wilson and grabbed for his gun, the officer fired two shots, one of which grazed Mr. Brown’s right hand, causing the teenager to run away.
The officer pursued, but then Mr. Brown suddenly turned and headed back toward him. The officer fired 10 more shots in three volleys, according to witnesses and bloodstain patterns on the ground. After being hit with six to eight bullets, Mr. Brown was finally felled by a shot into the top of his head.
In a written statement, Mr. Brown’s parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., said they were saddened and disappointed with the news that “the killer of our son wouldn’t be held accountable for his actions.”
But the couple also praised the second Justice Department report released Wednesday that found systemic discrimination against African-Americans by the Ferguson Police Department and municipal court.
“We are encouraged that the D.O.J. will hold the Ferguson Police Department accountable for the pattern of racial bias and profiling they found in their handling of interactions with people of color,” the statement said.
Neil J. Bruntrager, one of Mr. Wilson’s lawyers, expressed satisfaction with the report on the shooting. “It makes it clear that he’s exonerated. We’re glad to have that behind us,” he said.
Among the witnesses who told investigators that they had been nervous about corroborating Mr. Wilson’s account was a 31-year-old black woman who had been standing on her brother’s balcony at the time of the shooting. Her initial account to investigators, in which she said that she saw Mr. Wilson fire shots into Mr. Brown’s back as he lay dead on the street, was inconsistent with the autopsy findings.
When federal investigators challenged her, she admitted lying, explained to the F.B.I. that “you’ve gotta live the life to know it,” and said she had been afraid to contradict stories that Mr. Brown had been trying to surrender.
She then “admitted that she saw Mr. Brown running toward Mr. Wilson, prompting the police officer to yell ‘freeze,’ ” the report stated. It added that the woman said that “it appeared to her that Wilson’s life was in danger.” But when local authorities later tried to serve this witness a subpoena to appear before the grand jury, the report said, “she blockaded her door with a couch.”
Mr. McCulloch took the unusual strategy of presenting the grand jury with reams of evidence, including contradictory eyewitness testimony. He then released the entire proceedings to the public, something rarely done. That jumble of grand jury evidence did bolster important parts of Mr. Wilson’s account. DNA and blood samples indicated that Mr. Brown had reached into the officer’s police car, as Mr. Wilson had testified, and two shots were fired in a struggle.
That Mr. Brown, slightly wounded, ran away and then turned, with Mr. Wilson chasing him, was also established. And a trail of bloodstains seemed to clearly demonstrate that Mr. Brown was moving toward the officer even after being seriously wounded by an initial volley of bullets.
“I assume all the critics will rethink their position at this point now,” Mr. McCulloch told reporters Wednesday. “Or they will level the same criticism at the Department of Justice, if they want to be consistent.”
But to some critics, the conflicting witness accounts left questions. In his final moment, was Mr. Brown trying to raise his hands in surrender, was he staggering and falling, or was he continuing a menacing charge, as Mr. Wilson contends?
“While credible witnesses gave varying accounts of exactly what Brown was doing with his hands as he moved toward Wilson — i.e., balling them, holding them out, or pulling up his pants up — and varying accounts of how he was moving — i.e., ‘charging,’ moving in ‘slow motion,’ or ‘running’ — they all establish that Brown was moving toward Wilson when Wilson shot him,” the report said.
The Justice Department’s report includes a description of every witness’s accounts, which were sometimes offered in multiple interviews with the St. Louis County police and the F.B.I., and judged their likely credibility in court. Of the 41 witnesses described, the Justice Department labeled eight of them as credible because their statements were consistent over time, consistent with other accounts and consistent with the physical evidence. One of these eight was Mr. Wilson’s fiancée, with whom he spoke minutes after the shooting.
No witnesses had accounts that were credible and pointed toward Mr. Wilson’s guilt, the investigators wrote. Nine witnesses did not fully contradict or corroborate the officer, while the accounts of 24 others were dissected and shown, the federal investigators said, to lack credibility. These included witnesses who admitted they had not actually seen the events.
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