Just before Michael Brown was felled by police bullets, he turned to face the officer, Darren Wilson, who had been in pursuit.
Then, at the climax of an incident that has gripped and divided the country, Brown started moving toward the officer. The question of what happened next was at the heart of a grand jury investigation as well as a protest movement that erupted out of Ferguson, Mo.
Most of the roughly two dozen witnesses who saw the fatal gunfire Aug. 9 told the grand jury they observed something that was both upsetting and bewildering to them — a wounded black man, his hands raised somehow, walking toward the white police officer who was shooting at him.
Wilson, who the Associated Press said resigned from the Ferguson Police Department on Saturday, testified that he shot Brown after the 18-year-old had spun around in preparation for attack, ignoring an order to surrender and instead rushing forward. Blood had already been shed moments earlier during an altercation at Wilson’s SUV when the officer had fired his gun twice. Now, Wilson told the grand jury, he feared for his safety and fired again.
According to transcripts of the grand jury investigation into the deadly encounter in Ferguson, three of the witnesses to the shooting described Brown’s movements as a “charge.” Another couple said Brown may have been charging but were not sure. Most of the rest saw forward motion but described it as “steps” or “walking” or “stumbling,” with about a half dozen of these witnesses interpreting Brown’s actions as an attempt to surrender.
“He just kept walking, he just kept going, he just didn’t stop. Even today, I don’t know why, I don’t understand that,” testified one female witness, who had been visiting the Canfield Green apartment complex and who concluded that Brown was trying to surrender. “I asked my husband: ‘Why won’t that child just stop?’ ”
The question of whether Brown charged at Wilson was a key piece of the puzzle for the St. Louis County grand jury, which decided last week that it would not indict the officer in connection with the killing. But that same question still looms large for the American public, especially for those who see in Brown’s story a miscarriage of justice emblematic of a system stacked against African Americans.
In the weeks after his death, one image became the focus of widespread rage: Brown gunned down with his hands up in surrender. People in Ferguson and across the country took the streets, chanting, “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” Wilson’s supporters, however, have said that the image is a fiction.
In the account Wilson gave to the grand jury, he chased Brown after the teen accosted him through the window of the police SUV. Brown, injured by at least one gunshot during that initial confrontation, abruptly stopped running and turned around, ready to attack, Wilson said.
“When he looked at me, he made like a grunting, like aggravated sound and he starts, he turns and he’s coming back towards me,” Wilson testified. “His first step is coming towards me, he kind of does like a stutter step to start running. When he does that, his left hand goes in a fist and goes to his side, his right one goes under his shirt in his waistband and he starts running at me.”
St. Louis County prosecutors also have said the evidence shows that Brown pivoted during the chase but have not characterized his intentions. “Michael Brown moved toward Officer Wilson, several more shots were fired by the officer, and Michael Brown was fatally wounded,” prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch said last week at a news conference.
Virtually all the witnesses saw Brown’s hands raised in some fashion, according to the transcripts, but there was wide disagreement over what this meant. One witness who thought Brown was charging said she saw his hands balled up into fists. Others thought the raised hands were a gesture of surrender, though some of these witnesses said they were not lifted in the traditional way, with the hands high and palms facing forward. Others thought Brown had touched a wound on his body and raised his hands in shock.
All the witnesses recalled Brown turning around to face Wilson, with some reporting that Brown was met with a wave of bullets.
Some said they saw Brown move forward despite the gunfire. A least one witness believed the teen was continuing to charge while at least one other believed Brown’s movement was the forward stagger of a severely injured man.
A blood spatter at the scene suggests that Brown moved about 21 feet back toward Wilson after turning around. The pattern of shell casings on the street suggest Wilson was moving backward as he fired at Brown.
One of the witnesses, an employee of a maintenance company who was working at the apartment complex, testified that he heard a loud bang and saw Brown run by. The witness said he then heard another gunshot and saw Brown stumble to a halt and spin around toward Wilson.
“Michael Brown was kind of moving at him like, ‘I’m giving up, hands up,’ ” the witness said. He said he heard Brown shout, “OK, OK, OK.” (Another maintenance worker testified hearing Brown say “OK.” Although some other witnesses also testified that they heard Brown say something, their accounts differed as to what he said. )
Immediately afterward, the maintenance worker said, he wrote down what he saw in case he had to recount it to police. “On Saturday, August 9th, at approximately 12:15, I witnessed one white male police officer gun down and kill one black male,” he wrote.
Another witness, a woman walking past on her way home from the library, said she saw the entire scene. She said she saw Brown “reaching into the car” during the struggle at Wilson’s SUV and heard a gunshot, which she said drew many people in the nearby apartment building to their windows. Then she saw Brown back up a bit and sprint east.
She said Brown didn’t get far before he “turned around.” He then moved forward but it was the motion of a man falling face forward. “To me it looked like murder,” she said.
But the pair of witnesses who testified that Brown charged at Wilson were adamant that the story unfolded differently.
One man who had been working on the property of the apartment complex reported seeing “some sort of confrontation” between Brown and Wilson at the window of the police vehicle.
This witness said he heard a gunshot, Brown fled, and Wilson gave chase with his weapon drawn. At one point, the witness told the grand jury, Brown turned around and “did some sort of body gesture” before coming “forward in the charging motion.”
“When he charged once more, the officer returned fire with, I would say, give an estimate of three to four shots. And that’s when Mike Brown finally collapsed right about even with this driveway,” he said.
A young woman riding through the area with her family in a van said she saw much of the events from the window and also believed unequivocally that Brown was charging, although she said he seemed at some point to have thought about raising his hands.
“When he first started running, ma’am, he was not staggering,” she told the prosecutor. “He was charging this officer and that’s how I feel it was, like he was running towards him. If he had got close enough, I feel like he would have tackled him up against the car,” she said.
To others, Brown’s movements were much harder to interpret.
The woman who had been visiting Canfield Green said they were ambiguous. This witness, who had come to show someone an outfit she had bought for a class reunion, said it appeared that Brown was not charging but rather was stunned and perhaps uneducated about how to respond to the police.
“I don’t honestly think he has been taught,” she said.
The transcripts show that the grand jury evaluated the witnesses for credibility, finding some to be more believable than others. The jurors took pains to figure out whether witnesses might have had any anti-police or anti-black bias that could affect their interpretation of events.
The jurors also tried to determine whether Brown’s movements might have been viewed as a threat, regardless of his intent.
In grand jury testimony, one detective relayed what he had been told by a witness about how Brown had been holding his hands. “I’ll describe it palms up with his hands and fingers roughly at shoulder height, elbows not touching his rib cage, but elbows at a natural fall,” the detective said. The witness had described this gesture as non-threatening.
A juror asked the detective whether he considered such a gesture as threatening. The detective demurred repeatedly, saying it would depend on the circumstances.
But the juror continued to press the detective, asking, if a suspect were “holding [their] hands like this, yet still moving toward somebody, would you consider that a surrender?”
The detective replied: “No.”
Amy Brittain, Kimberly Kindy, Matt Zapotosky and Jose DelReal contributed this report.