The St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of teenager Michael Brown was the worst possible outcome — except for one in which passion overwhelmed facts and Wilson was forced to stand trial despite a lack of adequate evidence.
I hear your gasp, readers. A young man is dead. He should still be alive. It would be criminally naive to think that race had nothing to do with the fact of his shooting and the interaction that preceded it.
As a matter of maintaining calm and assuaging public concern about a criminal justice system that seems inevitably tilted in the direction of law enforcement and against young black men, an indictment and trial would, no doubt, have been the preferable outcome. A public trial would have offered more airing of the evidence, providing additional closure for society and confidence in the outcome of the case.
At least in theory, anyway. Previous cases — recall the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin — and the facts in this one suggest an eventual jury verdict finding Wilson not guilty of any charges, a result that would have further inflamed those who see the system as irredeemably biased.
Yet the decision before the grand jury involved a single incident, discrete facts about the encounter, and a criminal justice system properly focused not on the broader societal implications of the episode but on the two individuals involved, the shooter and the victim.
County prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s news conference Monday night, with his complaints about “the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything to talk about,” was inappropriate, verging on embarrassing.
But the prosecutor’s unusual move to release transcripts of grand jury testimony served as an important and welcome relief valve, adding evidence to a situation understandably overwhelmed by emotion.
Granted, it’s impossible to immediately and fully digest the reams of testimony presented to the grand jury. Still, transcripts of contradictory testimony from Wilson; Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown at the time of the shooting; and several witnesses buttress the jurors’ decision not to bring charges.
The outcome could have gone the other way, but convincing a trial jury of Wilson’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt — in particular, that he did not act in lawful self-defense — would have been a struggle.
The accounts, unsurprisingly, differ from the outset.
In Wilson’s telling, after a confrontation with the officer about walking on the street rather than the sidewalk, Brown effectively trapped him in his own cruiser, punching him through the open window. “When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” Wilson testified. Brown, he said, looked “like a demon.”
Wilson pulled the trigger twice in the car. Then, Brown fled and Wilson chased him. When Brown turned and started coming at him, Wilson testified, he ordered him to stop and then shot: “At this point, it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.”
Johnson’s account presented Wilson, not Brown, as the aggressor. He said that he never saw Brown punch the officer or grab his gun, but those assertions are contradicted by the physical evidence, of Wilson’s injuries and Brown’s DNA on the weapon. In the final moments, Johnson said Brown told the officer he did not have a gun but Wilson shot him repeatedly.
Eyewitness testimony, notoriously unreliable, supports both versions, particularly on the crucial question of what happened after Wilson got out of the car. “I’m seeing him [Brown] coming at an aggressive speed and just in charge mode toward the police officer,” one witness testified. Said another, “He stopped running and when he stopped running the police officer stopped firing. And, then Mr. Brown continued, started again to charge towards him.”
Others saw the encounter in a light more favorable to Brown. One witness said Brown wasn’t charging or even walking toward Wilson and had his palms facing the officer. Brown, said another, “was kinda hunched . . . with his hands up, like . . . ‘I’m givin up’ stage.”
In short, this case has been a mess, and it remains a tragedy. It’s much more complicated to call it a crime — even more complicated to prove it so.
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Read more on this issue:
Dana Milbank: Bob McCulloch’s pathetic prosecution of Darren Wilson
Jenny Durkan: As a federal prosecutor, I know how hard it is to charge officers
Jonathan Capehart: The crisis of leadership and confidence in Ferguson, Mo.
Sunil Dutta: We should get rid of local policing. Ferguson shows why.
Daniel Drezner: Three questions after Ferguson
Carol Anderson: Ferguson isn’t about black rage against cops