In Ferguson grand jury probe, credible evidence supported cop, prosecutor says

A grand jury decided not to indict a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer for killing unarmed black teen Michael Brown in August. The prosecutor involved pointed to inconsistencies in the testimony supporting the claim that Mr. Brown had surrendered.

Adrees Latif/Reuters
A protester stands with his hands on his head as a cloud of tear gas approaches after a grand jury returned no indictment Monday in the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August.

A St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson hinged on the view that the officer was acting in self-defense when he shot and killed Michael Brown.

The decision, released shortly after 9 p.m. Eastern time Monday by county prosecutor Robert McCulloch, touched off a new wave of protests in the St. Louis area community of Ferguson, where the shooting of the black youth by a white police officer on Aug. 9 brought simmering racial tensions into the open.

The grand jury weighed voluminous evidence, Mr. McCulloch said, and came to the conclusion that there was no “probable cause” to charge Officer Wilson with murder, or with voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. Police under Missouri law may use deadly force if they "reasonably believe" themselves or others to be in imminent danger.

McCulloch said in a televised announcement that he couldn’t speak to the exact reasoning process of the grand jury, whose deliberations are kept secret by law. But his description of the evidence suggested that the jury saw the evidence and testimony supporting Wilson's self-defense claim as consistent and compelling. By contrast, he characterized eyewitness accounts that Mr. Brown had surrendered with hands up or was retreating when he was killed as contradictory, with some eyewitnesses changing their testimony over the course of the investigation.

McCulloch said more than one witness described Brown, who was being confronted by Wilson in a Ferguson street, as moving toward the officer when the fatal shots were fired. An important witness who said Brown was moving toward Wilson at "full charge" was African-American, McCulloch said. 

Independent analysis of the grand jury's decision is likely to emerge in the coming days, since McCulloch has taken the unusual step of releasing grand jury information, including transcripts of testimony.

Wilson himself testified to the grand jury that Brown assaulted him through the car window, as the officer was trying to confront Brown and a friend who were walking in the middle of the street. Wilson said he saw that Brown was carrying mini-cigars and suspected that the two might have been involved in a convenience store robbery of mini-cigars that had been reported by police radio.

Wilson described Brown as having an angry and intense expression and himself as feeling worried that one more punch by the large teen might knock him out.

The officer fired his handgun at Brown twice while still in the car, hitting Brown’s hand at close range.

When Brown and his friend then started to flee, Wilson got out of his car and began to chase them. When Brown stopped and turned toward him, Wilson said the young man was coming at him aggressively, according to a quotation from the grand jury transcript, reported by the Associated Press.

Brown was “just coming straight at me like he was going to run right through me. And when he gets about ... 8 to 10 feet away ... all I see is his head and that's what I shot," Wilson testified.

Wilson said he radioed for backup before trying to confront the two young men and said he was calling for Brown to get on the ground before firing the final shots, according to a summary of the transcripts by CNN. Wilson testified that he had never used his gun in the line of duty before.

McCulloch said that Wilson’s own testimony should not be given too much weight, since he was the target of the investigation. In response to a reporter’s question, McCulloch said that the most credible witnesses of the incident were “all African-American.”

Brown's body ultimately fell about 153 feet from Wilson's car, and the entire incident took only about 90 seconds from Wilson’s initial contact with Brown to the final shot.

The prosecutor also said grand jurors heard from about 60 witnesses during 25 days of reviewing evidence, with those testifying ranging from eyewitnesses to medical experts who reviewed the wounds on Brown’s body.

Although McCulloch emphasized the grand jurors’ painstaking review of evidence, many people across America thought Wilson should be charged with a crime given "probable cause" standard needed to indict. At least nine of the twelve jurors needed to agree on a charge to indict Wilson. Media reports suggest the jury was comprised of nine whites and three blacks.

Protesters in Ferguson and elsewhere took the decision as a miscarriage of justice and part of a pattern in which police are too prone to use deadly force – and too often use that force against black men.

“We cannot forget that Michael Brown was just one of many unarmed young men of color who have been killed by law enforcement this year,” Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said in a statement released after the grand jury decision. “We must continue to partner with law enforcement at all levels to correct the systemic bias that exists at every juncture of our justice system and causes young men of color to be killed or unjustly targeted and subject to heavy-handed sentencing.”

The grand jury outcome was not a surprise, and protest groups had prepared to respond without violence. But the streets of Ferguson became a scene of chaos after the announcement.

More than a dozen businesses were badly damaged or destroyed, and authorities reported hearing hundreds of gunshots in the St. Louis suburb, the Associated Press reported. Smoke was still billowing from some buildings Tuesday morning.

Police eventually used tear gas in efforts to control protesters, and at least 29 people were arrested, the AP reported.

Critics of the process in this case say McCulloch and his team could and should have pushed for an indictment.

McCulloch's account of the shooting differed from some news reports, prior to the grand jury decision, which said quoted witnesses saying Wilson had fired shots as Brown was running away. The prosecutor said the 10 shots Wilson fired after getting out of his car all came while Brown was moving toward Wilson, according to a New York Times report.

The Justice Department is conducting a separate investigation that could result in federal charges, but investigators would need to satisfy a rigorous standard of proof in order to mount a prosecution, according to AP. Brown's family could also file a wrongful-death lawsuit against Wilson.

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