St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch decried a new documentary Monday that includes previously unreleased video evidence related to the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., calling the 90-minute film “poorly edited” and “pathetic.”
The documentary, “Stranger Fruit,” a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post, premiered this weekend at the annual SXSW conference and alleges that McCulloch and others suppressed and cherry-picked evidence to boost the account of Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Brown, 18, on Aug. 9, 2014, prompting nationwide protests.
“If Michael was a rich white kid, with those bullets in his body in the places they were, Darren Wilson would have been in jail three years ago,” filmmaker Jason Pollack said in an interview Monday. “He should be in jail for involuntary manslaughter at the least.”
A week after the shooting, Ferguson police released video of an altercation between Brown and the owner of Ferguson Market and Liquor, which shows Brown grabbing and pushing the store owner after grabbing several packs of Swisher Sweet cigarillos from the counter. Minutes later, Wilson encountered Brown.
The two men tussled through the window of Wilson’s police vehicle, according to police and witness accounts, and at some point, Wilson drew and fired his weapon at Brown — striking the teen’s hand. Brown then ran more than 100 feet, according to documents released by the prosecutor, before being shot six more times by Wilson. Wilson said that Brown had turned and charged him, while some witnesses and supporters of Brown said that he was attempting to surrender when he was killed.
A grand jury, convened by McCulloch, declined to prosecute Wilson.
In the years since the shooting, law enforcement officials have cited the robbery as part of the justification of Wilson’s actions, saying that the officer knew that Brown fit the description of the robbery suspect.
The new film, however, argues that the liquor store video does not depict a robbery, but rather theorizes that Brown was returning to the store to pick up cigarillos that he had left there after exchanging them for marijuana. To support this theory, the documentary shows previously unreleased footage from the liquor store.
The footage, first reported by the New York Times, appears to show Brown entering Ferguson Market and Liquor just after 1 a.m. Aug. 9, walking around the store and handing something to the clerks behind the counter. The clerks then appear to hand Brown a plastic bag.
Pollock says the previously unreleased video of Brown’s early morning trip to the liquor store hints at a new narrative: that Brown had given a small amount of weed to the store’s overnight workers in exchange for packs of cigarillos. Pollock says the video shows Brown leaving some of the cigars behind the counter to be picked up later — suggesting that Brown was not robbing the liquor store in the moments before he was killed, but was coming back to pick up the cigarillos he had left there.
The filmmaker theorizes that police released only the later video — showing Brown returning to the store, and becoming angry and violent when the cigarillos he had left there were not returned to him — to build the case that Brown was unpredictably violent and support Wilson’s account that Brown turned and charged him.
“The liquor store video is, and has always been, a distraction,” Pollock said.
In the hours after the film was released, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, who oversaw the investigation into the shooting, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he had not been aware of Brown’s earlier visit to the liquor store. Former Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson told the Post-Dispatch that he had not seen the video.
But McCulloch said Monday that the newly released video is not new evidence — noting that it was briefly mentioned in documents his office released in November 2014 — and his office later released full video of the 1:13 a.m. interaction, which he said showed that Brown did not successfully barter with the store clerks.
“This is not new information; it’s certainly not a surprise to anyone,” McCulloch said. “It’s certainly not relevant or material to anything that occurred later that day at the store.”
McCulloch said that the video was not initially released because its content is “immaterial” and “irrelevant” to Brown’s shooting.
“It’s very clear that there was no transaction between Mr. Brown and the store employees,” McCulloch said. “The suggestion that he’s coming back to pick up what he bartered for is just stupid. … what this guy is putting out is just nonsense.”
Attorney Jay Kanzler, who represents the Ferguson Market and Liquor store, said in an interview Monday that his clients had no previous relationship with Brown and that no barter took place between Brown and the store clerks.
“The guy at the register tells him to get the hell out,” said Kanzler, who described the narrative proposed by Pollock’s documentary as irresponsible, noting that the video footage shows the clerks placing the items that had been in Brown’s bag back on the racks after Brown leaves. “If it was really meant to be a layaway transaction, you don’t take everything out of the bag and restock it.”
Kanzler said that Brown’s anger that he had been unable to barter for the cigarillos during his first visit could explain the second interaction with store employees, in which he is seen on video physically grabbing and shoving the store owner.
“The damage that has been done to this community as a result of this very reckless and false documentary, is sad, and we’ve taken five steps back,” Kanzler said. “This filmmaker with his 15 minutes of fame has left us all to pick up the pieces.”
The St. Louis County Police Department referred inquires to the Ferguson Police Department.
“Our department did not release the robbery footage video,” a spokesman for the St. Louis County Police Department said. “Ferguson PD released the video of Michael Brown committing a strong armed robbery.”
The Ferguson Police Department could not immediately be reached for comment.