“Michael Brown’s murder forever changed Ferguson and America. His tragic death sparked a desperately needed conversation and a nationwide movement. We must fight for stronger accountability and racial equity in our justice system.”
— Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), in a tweet, Aug. 9
“5 years ago Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael was unarmed yet he was shot 6 times. I stand with activists and organizers who continue the fight for justice for Michael. We must confront systemic racism and police violence head on.”
— Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), in a tweet, Aug. 9
Harris tweeted about the fifth anniversary of the “murder” of Michael Brown. Within minutes, Warren followed, saying “Brown was murdered by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.”
Both appear to be echoing a narrative that emerged shortly after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown, 18. The legal definition of murder varies according to jurisdiction, but generally it means killing someone with malice aforethought.
In November 2014, a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson after finding that witness reports did not match with evidence. On March 4, 2015, the Obama administration’s Justice Department issued an 86-page investigative report, based on testimony from 40 witnesses and a review of forensic evidence, on the shooting that concluded “there is no credible evidence that Wilson willfully shot Brown as he was attempting to surrender or was otherwise not posing a threat.”
The same day, the Justice Department also published the results of its investigation into the Ferguson Police Department, which highlighted systemic exploitation and racial profiling of black residents in Ferguson, such as racial disparities in traffic stops even though black drivers were less likely to be found with contraband.
Harris and Warren, who are both seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, appear to accept the results of one report and not the other.
There is little dispute about how the tragedy started. In midday, Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, went to Ferguson Market & Liquor. Brown, who was 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 290 pounds, reached across the counter, seized packages of cigarillos and shoved the clerk, who notified police.
Wilson initially encountered the pair when they were walking in the middle of the street, and he told them to get on the sidewalk. He then realized they were suspects in the robbery he had heard on the police radio and backed his vehicle, an SUV, to stop them from walking any farther. Brown then reached through the open driver’s window and punched and grabbed Wilson, according to the report.
There were numerous witnesses deemed credible by investigators. (Others were found not to be credible because their accounts were inconsistent or did not match the forensic evidence.) We will let their accounts, taken from the Justice Department report, tell the rest of the story. Some testified reluctantly, with one recounting signs on the street where Brown was shot that said: “snitches get stitches.”
Witness 102, a 27-year-old biracial man: “Brown was ‘wrestling’ through the window, but he was unable to see what Wilson was doing. After a few seconds, Witness 102 heard a gunshot. ... Witness 102 thought that he had just witnessed the murder of a police officer because a few seconds passed before Wilson emerged from the SUV.”
(Brown had tried to grab Wilson’s gun but ended up getting shot in one of his hands, the report said: “Autopsy results and bullet trajectory, skin from Brown’s palm on the outside of the SUV door as well as Brown’s DNA on the inside of the driver’s door corroborate Wilson’s account that during the struggle, Brown used his right hand to grab and attempt to control Wilson’s gun.”)
Witness 103, a 58-year-old black man: The witness “saw Brown punching Wilson at least three times in the facial area, through the open driver’s window of the SUV. Witness 103 described Wilson and Brown as having hold of each other’s shirts, but Brown was ‘getting in a couple of blows.’ Wilson was leaning back toward the passenger seat with his forearm up, in an effort to block the blows. Then Witness 103 heard a gunshot and Brown took off running.”
Witness 104, a 26-year-old biracial woman: The witness “heard two gunshots. She looked out the front window and saw Brown at the driver’s window of Wilson’s SUV. Witness 104 knew that Brown’s arms were inside the SUV, but she could not see what Brown and Wilson were doing because Brown’s body was blocking her view. Witness 104 saw Brown run from the SUV, followed by Wilson, who ‘hopped’ out of the SUV and ran after him while yelling, ‘stop, stop, stop.’ ”
Witness 102: “Wilson then chased Brown with his gun drawn, but not pointed at Brown, until Brown abruptly turned around at a nearby driveway. Witness 102 explained that it made no sense to him why Brown turned around. Brown did not get on the ground or put his hands up in surrender. ... Brown made some type of movement similar to pulling his pants up or a shoulder shrug, and then ‘charged’ at Wilson.”
Witness 103: He “saw Brown ‘moving fast’ toward Wilson.”
Witness 104: “Wilson did not fire his gun as Brown ran from him. Brown then turned around and ‘for a second’ began to raise his hands as though he may have considered surrendering, but then quickly ‘balled up in fists’ in a running position and ‘charged’ at Wilson. Witness 104 described it as a ‘tackle run,’ explaining that Brown ‘wasn’t going to stop.’ Wilson fired his gun only as Brown charged at him, backing up as Brown came toward him.”
Witness 105, a 50-year-old black woman: “Wilson told Brown to ‘get down,’ but Brown did not comply. Instead, Brown put his hands down ‘in a running position.’ Witness 105 could not tell whether Brown was ‘charging’ at Wilson or whether his plan was to run past Wilson, but either way, Brown was running toward Wilson. ... Wilson only shot at Brown when Brown was moving toward him."
Witness 108, a 74-year-old black man: This man, a reluctant witness, confided to a friend that he “'would have f------ shot that boy, too.’ In saying so, Witness 108 mimicked an aggressive stance with his hands out in front of him, as though he was about to charge.” He did not come forward to police, but detectives tracked him down and he reluctantly "explained that Wilson told Brown to ‘stop’ or ‘get down’ at least ten times, but instead Brown ‘charged’ at Wilson.”
Witness 104: “Wilson did not fire while Brown momentarily had his hands up. Witness 104 explained that it took some time for Wilson to fire, adding that she ‘would have fired sooner.’ ”
Witness 102: “Wilson only fired shots when Brown was coming toward Wilson. It appeared to Witness 102 that Wilson’s life was in jeopardy. ... Witness 102 said he wanted to ‘bring closure to [Brown’s] family,’ so they would not think that the officer ‘got away with murdering their son.’ ”
Witness 105: “She explained that she was coming forward because in speaking with her neighbors, she realized that what they believed had happened was inconsistent with what actually happened. She further explained that she had not been paying attention to media accounts, and had been unaware of the inaccuracies being reported.”
In the report, Johnson is listed as Witness 101. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, he stood by his story that Brown had “put his hands in the air” but that Wilson approached him with his weapon drawn and shot him. The Justice Department report, citing witness statements, said Johnson did not appear to be in a position to see what happened because he fled as soon as the first shots were fired.
Witness 102: He "did not see Brown’s friend, Witness 101, at any time during the incident until Witness 101 ‘came out of nowhere,’ shouting, 'They just killed him!’ ”
Witness 104: The witness “first saw Brown’s friend, Witness 101, when he took off running as soon as the first two shots were fired. She never saw him again.”
The report added: “Other witnesses who have suggested that Brown was shot with his hands up in surrender have either recanted their statements, such as Witnesses 119 and 125, provided inconsistent statements, such as Witness 124, or have provided accounts that are verifiably untrue, such as Witnesses 121, 139, and 132.”
The report said the ballistics analysis showed that the officer “fired a total of 12 shots, two from his vehicle and ten on the roadway,” in “three gunshot volleys.” The autopsy found Wilson’s shots struck Brown “as few as six or as many as eight times,” killing him. But, the report said, “There is no credible evidence to refute Wilson’s stated subjective belief that he was acting in self-defense.”
We repeatedly sought comment from the Harris and Warren campaigns but did not get a response. We should note that two other presidential contenders, Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, accurately said that Brown was “killed” By Wilson in their anniversary tweets.
The Pinocchio Test
One can certainly raise questions about whether Wilson should have fired as many shots as he did or acted appropriately under the circumstances. The racial profiling by the Ferguson Police Department is well documented and fair game for criticism.
But Harris and Warren have ignored the findings of the Justice Department to accuse Wilson of murder, even though the Justice Department found no credible evidence to support that claim.
Instead, the Justice Department found that the popular narrative was wrong, according to witnesses deemed to be credible, some of whom testified reluctantly because of fear of reprisal. The department produced a comprehensive report to determine what happened, making the senators’ dismissal of it even more galling. Harris and Warren both earn Four Pinocchios.
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