A Ferguson police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, on Aug. 9. That much we know, along with many details about what happened that day. Yet while police have provided brief, incremental updates and witnesses have detailed other accounts, some of what happened in the final moments of Brown’s life remain unclear.
Since there has been so much news surrounding Ferguson — both in terms of Brown’s death and the ongoing situation on the streets — it seems like a good idea to stop and take stock of everything people have said about exactly what happened on the day Brown was killed.
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What police said happened
The first clear details from authorities came during a news briefing with St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar on Sunday, Aug. 10, the day after Brown was killed. (The county police took over the investigation from the Ferguson police the day of the shooting.)
Belmar briefly described “a physical confrontation” between Wilson and Brown. Wilson was in his car when he encountered Brown and a friend who were walking on the street, Belmar said. (Belmar did not elaborate on the nature of the encounter.) Brown “allegedly pushed” Wilson back into the car and “physically assaulted” Wilson, Belmar said. Following this, it appeared there was a struggle over Wilson’s gun, which was fired once inside the car, Belmar said. (Police have confirmed that Wilson was the only person to fire the gun and that Brown was unarmed.) Wilson got out of the car and shot and killed Brown, Belmar said.
The overall scene spanned 35 feet, Belmar said. And while he did not say how many times Brown was shot, it was “more than a few, he said. The next day, Belmar told reporters that Brown “was struck several times by gunfire,” but did not provide any additional details. Wilson has told people that he opened fire because he feared for his life after Brown charged at him.
On Wednesday, after another two nights of confrontations between residents and police firing tear gas and rubber bullets (and a day after police scrapped plans to release Wilson’s name, citing threats), Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson briefed the media.
He said that the incident was not caught on camera. For the first time, Jackson detailed the injuries Wilson sustained during the encounter. “The side of his face was swollen,” Jackson said, though he could not say which side. Wilson was taken to a hospital and treated at the emergency room with non-life-threatening injuries, Jackson said. (More on this in the next section.)
That Friday, six days after Brown was killed, Jackson addressed the media and announced that Brown had been the suspect in a convenience store robbery the day he was killed. Later in the day, Jackson again spoke to reporters, this time clarifying that the encounter between Wilson and Brown “was not related to the robbery.” Instead, it stemmed from the fact that Brown and his friend were “walking down the street blocking traffic,” Jackson said. Later in the day, Jackson pivoted yet again, telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Wilson saw the cigars in Brown’s hand and knew about the robbery.
What other people said happened
Dorian Johnson, an eyewitness who said he was with Brown when he was killed (and in the convenience store when the Swisher Sweets cigars were taken), told investigators that Wilson instigated the confrontation, pulling up to the pair in his police cruiser and telling them to get out of the middle of the street.
Freeman Bosley Jr., Johnson’s attorney and a former St. Louis mayor, told The Washington Post that Wilson pulled up so close to Brown that when he opened his car door, it bumped into the teenager. Wilson reached out and grabbed Brown by the throat and grabbed his shirt as Brown tried to move away, Bosley said. At that point, Johnson said he saw Wilson pull out a gun and shoot Brown in the chest or arm. Johnson said the officer hit Brown with another round as he was running away and fatally gunned him down after he stopped and raised his hands in surrender.
Michael Brady, another eyewitness, told CNN that he saw “some kind of tussle going on” with Wilson still inside the car and Brown next to it. Brady said Brown and Johnson then ran away, while Wilson got out of his car and began shooting.
Witnesses have given investigators conflicting accounts of what occurred. The biggest differences have arisen in describing what happened after Brown ran away from Wilson’s car, as the New York Times reported:
Some witnesses say that Mr. Brown, 18, moved toward Officer Wilson, possibly in a threatening manner, when the officer shot him dead. But others say that Mr. Brown was not moving and may even have had his hands up when he was killed….
Several witnesses have told investigators that Mr. Brown stopped and turned around with his arms up. According to his account to the Ferguson police, Officer Wilson said that Mr. Brown had lowered his arms and moved toward him, law enforcement officials said. Fearing that the teenager was going to attack him, the officer decided to use deadly force. Some witnesses have backed up that account. Others, however — including Mr. Johnson — have said that Mr. Brown did not move toward the officer before the final shots were fired.
The county’s investigation as well as a private autopsy commissioned by Brown’s family showed that he had at least six gunshot wounds and that all of them were fired from the front. (An autopsy ordered by the Justice Department reached similar conclusions.) Attorneys for Brown’s family said that one of the gunshots indicated that he was surrendering when he was killed, but the forensic pathologists who conducted this autopsy said it was unclear whether he was raising his arms to surrender.
It is not known just how severe Wilson’s injuries were following the encounter. Jackson, the Ferguson police chief, only said that the side of Wilson’s face was swollen and that he required treatment at a hospital, but he did not elaborate beyond that. A family friend of Wilson’s told The Washington Post that the officer suffered an eye bone fracture during the encounter with Wilson. This friend also said hospital X-rays of this injury were going to be shared with the office of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney McCulloch.
A spokesman for McCulloch said they have received no medical records yet relating to Wilson and said they could not comment on the officer’s injuries. And a spokesman for the county police declined to comment on X-rays or any medical records, owing to the active investigation into the shooting. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III told Fox News he could not confirm reports about the fractured eye bone.
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What we know and what we still don’t know
At this point, there seems to be some consensus over the confrontation’s early moments: Brown and Johnson were walking down the street when the officer ordered them to get out of the street and onto the sidewalk. There was a confrontation at the officer’s car, during which Wilson was injured (though the exact severity is unknown) and Wilson’s gun was fired (by the officer, not Brown, according to the Ferguson police chief).
Yet there are things we still do not know about what happened at the car, including whether Wilson did, in fact, shoot Brown at the vehicle. We also do not know more about Wilson’s injury. Following that, it is still unclear what happened after Brown ran away from Wilson’s car, particularly as some witnesses say Brown may have moved toward Wilson while others say the teenager was not moving and may have had his hands up.