ST. LOUIS — One morning late last month, a St. Louis courtroom filled up with prosecutors, lawyers and press who wondered if they’d catch a glimpse of a vanished man.
The man, police officer Darren Wilson, hadn’t been seen in public since Aug. 9, when he shot and killed an unarmed black teenager and found himself in a wave of national fury. But here, at this unrelated preliminary hearing, Wilson had incentive to appear. He’d been asked to to provide testimony against an alleged low-level drug dealer — somebody he’d wrestled to the ground and handcuffed 20 months earlier, in an arrest that won him a Ferguson city commendation. Now Wilson just had to recount the story to a judge.
The courtroom players took their places for just one in a series of rapid-fire hearings. A few minutes passed. The judge called the defense attorney and prosecutor into whispering range, and soon it became clear: Wilson wasn’t going to show, his absence emblematic of a remarkable period in which the central character of an explosive national story has gone totally dark. Judge Mary Schroeder then dismissed the drug case for what she called a “failure to prosecute.”
“The defendant and I, we walked out the door, said, ‘Thank you, Jesus,’ and shook hands,” said Nick Zotos, attorney for the defendant, Christopher Brooks. “You could not make that case without [Wilson].”
Experts and lawyers familiar with other racially charged cases emphasize that Wilson has no obligation to speak publicly — and even doing so might not change many opinions after the volatile protests that followed Brown’s death. What makes Wilson’s case notable, they said, is the completeness of the information void: Wilson left no traces on social media. His police chief says they haven’t spoken since the aftermath of the shooting. Even at pro-Wilson rallies, most who show up say they’re simply showing support for police officers and due process. Nobody in Wilson’s far-flung family has spoken on his behalf.
“If anything is going to be said, it will come straight from him,” said Wilson’s sister, Kara Sosko.
Wilson is believed to be in police protection, having left his suburban ranch-style brick home, where the blinds are drawn and leaves collect in the front yard. He is on paid leave, but Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said this week that Wilson is unlikely to return to the job, regardless of whether he is indicted.
CNN has reported that Wilson may be negotiating his resignation.
It’s unclear to what extent Wilson’s safety would be in jeopardy if he appeared in public, but one longtime acquaintance, speaking on the condition of anonymity, rattled off a series of online threats put out against the officer, including a$5,000 bounty posted on Twitter by a self-described urban militia group. The acquaintance said Wilson faced such backlash that there seemed to be little public desire to hear about other key aspects of his life: why he became a policeman, how he interacted with black people, what he’s been thinking about since the shooting.
“He was put into a position any cop could have been put in, and he was in fear for his life,” said the acquaintance, who said she has not spoken with Wilson since the shooting. The acquaintance requested anonymity because she didn’t want her family’s name to become public. “Then we’d be harassed by only God knows who,” she said.
In mapping Wilson’s steps since the shooting, there are just a few shards of evidence. Surveillance videos taken hours after Brown’s death show Wilson leaving the Ferguson police station for the hospital and then returning 2
Separately, sources have told The Washington Post that Wilson testified in front of the grand jury that’s deciding whether to indict him. The controversial leaks from the grand jury proceedings have so far appeared favorable to Wilson and have left many in the St. Louis area bracing for the officer to be cleared of wrongdoing. According to sources, Wilson testified to the jury that Brown lunged for the officer’s gun.
What little is known about Wilson comes mostly from public records uncovered in the aftermath of the shooting. He comes from a fractured family, his mother marrying three times and then dying at 35 after being convicted of financial crimes. Wilson himself divorced last year. He began his police career in another St. Louis neighborhood, Jennings, whose department was disbanded over racial relations problems and a corruption scandal. Wilson then latched on at Ferguson.
With Wilson in hiding, some of what he accomplished on that force is being undone. Days after Wilson no-showed at the Brooks hearing, the St. Louis County prosecutors’ office said that several other pending felony cases were being dismissed because they “could not proceed without the testimony of Wilson.”
Some legal experts said this week that Wilson will have a hard time reviving his career, even if he is not indicted, although public opinion could still swing based on grand jury findings. Should Wilson be cleared of wrongdoing, the St. Louis County prosecutors’ office has pledged to release a trove of documents that will provide much-needed details on the confrontation that led to the shooting.
For somebody in Wilson’s shoes, there is no perfect way to handle the aftermath of a volatile controversy, and experts who have advised in similar cases have conflicting feelings about what Wilson should say or do.
“For me, it’s real simple,” said Ira Salzman, the lawyer who represented Stacey Koon, the ranking officer during the 1991 Rodney King beating. “There is a hue and cry, and people are looking at things through a racial prism. It is my strong position that anybody under that kind of glare in a noteworthy case should make all their statements under oath.”
But Mark O’Mara, the lawyer who represented George Zimmerman — a neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot black teenager Trayvon Martin — said Wilson and his attorneys should make an effort to speak to the public. That is especially important, O’Mara said, during all the little flare-ups that happen as a case develops. This week, old video surfaced of an officer who looked like Wilson threatening to arrest a man who was videotaping him. Neither Wilson nor his legal team addressed the video.
“If the Brown family is saying what they want, silence from Darren Wilson is really devastating,” O’Mara said. “He could just say: ‘I was being a cop. I always wanted this. I always wanted to serve.’ Seeing those words would give him a persona that’s sorely lacking. Any vacuum you create will come back to haunt you. Silence — that may have been a strategy in 2001. Not in 2014, in a national event.”