The witnesses were seizing a midsummer Saturday. They were waking up from naps after leisurely breakfasts. They were fixing gutters and heading to their afternoon jobs. They were listening to gospel music in their cars. And then came the screech of tires that snapped their attention to the street.
One image is consistent in their recollections: a young black man in yellow socks in a confrontation with a white police officer driving a police SUV.
But no clear picture of what truly transpired emerges from thousands of pages of grand jury testimony released this week by St. Louis County prosecutors. The witness accounts provide new and often conflicting details about what happened leading up to the moment when police officer Darren Wilson shot dead 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
After a three-month investigation involving 60 witnesses and 70 hours of testimony, the grand jury found Monday that there was insufficient evidence to charge Wilson with a crime.
Overall, the witnesses provided a consistent account of many of the events surrounding the Aug. 9 encounter, which began through the window of the SUV and ended with Brown dead in the street.
But the testimony fails to definitively clarify some of the most crucial details of the interaction between Wilson and Brown that day. Witnesses differed on critical aspects of the physical struggle, as well as what Brown was doing with his hands — whether he had them up in surrender as his supporters have insisted — when the fatal bullets struck.
The inconsistencies in a few cases stemmed from efforts by witnesses to mislead. But in other instances, it was more likely natural confusion, the result of people going about their day when suddenly a startling narrative unfolded.
According to the documents, in which most eyewitness names are redacted, some observed the events through car windows, while others came to their apartment windows and balconies when they heard a scuffle, catching only glimpses of what happened. Some watched, rapt, but missed key moments when they fumbled with cellphones in hopes of videotaping the incident.
For the grand jurors, the conflicting statements may have provided a boost to Wilson’s credibility or made it difficult to conclude there was probable cause, which is required for sending a case to trial.
But for Brown’s supporters, who have long cast the police officer as the aggressor, the inconsistent accounts add fuel to their argument that Wilson should have been put on trial so the clashing evidence would be vetted in open court — not as part of a secretive grand jury deliberation.
County prosecutors have laid out an official version of events that closely tracks with Wilson’s. The officer, after urging Brown and a friend to stop jaywalking, cut off their path with his vehicle when he realized Brown matched the description of a suspect wanted in connection with a theft at a convenience store. There was an altercation at the window, and Wilson squeezed off two shots with his gun.
Brown then took off running, with Wilson behind him in pursuit. Brown then swiveled around and moved toward the officer — provoking Wilson into firing a final barrage of gunfire, according to this official rendering.
In testimony, presented in the form of in-person and recorded interviews over the course of more than three months, some of the grand jury witnesses corroborated the narrative provided by the prosecutors.
“Initially, um, I thought wow, um, did he have to use force on him?” one male witness told detectives in a recorded interview that was played to jurors. “And after thinking about it and reviewing everything and putting myself in the police officer’s shoes, I feel like he handled the situation correct force-wise.”
But others, in equally stark terms, offered entirely different versions. “The officer unloaded on him,” another witness told the grand jury. “I mean, he fired four or five shots in rapid succession. He gunned him down.”
Said another, “And the police just stand over him and shot him like he playing darts at a board.”
The material presented to the grand jurors included forensic evidence, media reports and expert testimony.
The grand jury transcripts show prosecutors, who led the inquiry, grilling eyewitnesses, testing their memories and asking for minute details. Often the specifics clearly recalled by one were entirely at odds with the clear memories of another.
For example, some described a physical struggle inside the SUV, while at least one witness said the whole conflict took place entirely outside. Some said Brown, after spinning around to face Wilson, staggered toward him, while others described it as a “charge.” While some recounted that Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was killed, others described his hands as clutching his torso or hovering at shoulder-level.
One witness even claimed to hear him say in those final moments: “I give up.”
In some cases, inconsistencies seemed to reflect the fact that witnesses saw only part of the incident. They were in their apartments, their windows offering only partial views of the scene. They looked up only when they heard the first staccato of gunfire. Some were focused not so much on what was happening in front of them than on their own safety.
One witness had been in a car nearby when it became obvious that something very bad was about to happen. He said he turned to his co-worker and said, “Man, you see this? We’ve got to get out of here.” He said the officer’s window was down, and Wilson and Brown were reaching through the window. “The next thing I heard was a shot, pow, and then the young man took off running.”
Some, however, told entirely contradictory or made-up stories and were called out by prosecutors, who went to great lengths to discredit some witnesses.
One woman told an elaborate story about driving around looking for a friend’s apartment when she pulled into a parking lot to ask for directions. She said she was there in time to see Brown “lunging” into the car to his waist, she said. Later, she said, Wilson had his gun drawn and pointed at Brown. That’s when “Brown started to charge . . . kind of like a football player, like this, with his hands out,” she said, clenching her fists.
But federal prosecutors later discredited the woman, demanding to know the spelling of the friend’s name and asking to look at her e-mail records to prove that she had written a message to the friend. The prosecutors then returned from a break to say they viewed her computer search history, finding suspicious searches, and that there was no report of a car matching hers near the scene of the crime.
One witness described Brown facing the officer on his knees and had previously said he heard Brown pleading for his life. “What you are saying you saw isn’t forensically possible based on the evidence,” a prosecutor said. The witness later asked to leave.
A woman who lives in the Canfield Green apartment complex gave two statements to police but later told the grand jury she didn’t see the shooting.
“The statement that I made, it was with what my boyfriend . . . saw,” she admitted. “I just felt like I want to be part of something.”
One witness who had spent the morning having breakfast with his family and taking a nap testified that he watched most of the events from his second-floor apartment. The prosecutors asked in painstaking detail how the police car was oriented and where Brown’s body fell. But after the witness laid out his story, they presented him with photos and diagrams that apparently conflicted with his recollection.
“I was there,” the witness said.
“I know you were there,” the prosecutor said. “But people remember things differently or they see things from a different perspective. Distances are hard to judge.”
Ellen Nakashima, Tom Hamburger, Sari Horwitz, John Sullivan and Kimbriell Kelly in Washington and Kimberly Kindy in St. Louis contributed to this report.