Michael Brown shooting: why civil lawsuit may be an important step

The family of Michael Brown announced a wrongful-death lawsuit Thursday against the city of Ferguson, Mo. The plaintiffs aim to present evidence that they say has not been properly considered.

Jeff Roberson/AP
Lesley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, listens during a news conference on Thursday in Clayton, Mo. The parents of Michael Brown filed a wrongful-death lawsuit Thursday against the city of Ferguson, Mo., over the fatal shooting of their son by a white police officer, a confrontation that sparked a protest movement across the United States.

A Missouri shooting death that stirred national controversy and inspired a “Black Lives Matter” movement may be moving toward a jury trial.

The family of Michael Brown, the black 18-year-old who was fatally shot by a police officer in last August, announced a wrongful-death lawsuit Thursday against the city of Ferguson, Mo., where the death occurred.

The civil suit comes after a St. Louis County grand jury last year opted not to bring a criminal case against the officer, Darren Wilson, who has resigned from the force. Mr. Brown’s parents, as well as some of the witnesses who testified to the grand jury, say the white police officer did not have to kill their son.

The lawsuit may be an important step forward in this racially charged case. That’s because, assuming the case moves forward to trial, the circumstances of Brown's death will be weighed by a jury in a court of law.

This is different from the grand jury process that led to no charges against Mr. Wilson. That process has citizen jurors, but it’s a behind-doors investigation that’s influenced by prosecutors who, critics say, too rarely are willing to indict police officers.

The way a civil suit works would also be different from how the US Justice Department handles such cases. In the Brown death, it decided not to bring federal charges against Wilson.

“We are hopeful that our presentation of the evidence through this case will highlight the facts that nobody has seen, the physical evidence that nobody has talked about, that has been overlooked – placed in a footnote in some reports,” said Anthony Gray, one of the attorneys representing the Brown family, in announcing the suit.

Brown was unarmed when he was shot, but in the grand jury proceedings, Wilson testified that he considered Brown a robbery suspect, that Brown had assaulted him through the police car window as Wilson confronted him, and that after Wilson got out of his car to give chase, Brown charged at him.

The civil lawsuit asserts that the circumstances surrounding Brown’s death differed in major ways from the version of events given when County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch summarized the grand jury’s decision.

The suit casts Wilson as the aggressor, citing testimony that he used abusive language from the moment he began interacting with Brown and another young man who were walking down Ferguson’s Canfield Drive at midday on Aug. 9.

Moments later, Wilson backed his vehicle to within inches of Brown’s body and pushed open the car door into Brown, and then, when the car door ricocheted back, Wilson “used unwarranted physical force” by grabbing Brown through the car window, the lawsuit asserts.

The lawsuit maintains that Brown was acting in self-defense when he struggled with Wilson and then fled; that Brown said, “Don’t shoot. I don’t have a gun. I’m unarmed”; and that Wilson never ordered Brown to “stop” or “freeze.”

The suit claims, too, that Wilson fired his gun while Brown was fleeing, in addition to when Brown turned back toward Wilson.

“According to several eye-witnesses, [Brown] did not pose any threat to Defendant Wilson,” the lawsuit states.

By contrast, when Mr. McCulloch presented the grand jury’s decision, he acknowledged varying witness accounts but emphasized evidence aligned with Wilson’s testimony – that the officer shot in self-defense.

For the civil trial, the burden of proof for the jury to weigh is lighter than in a criminal trial: preponderance of evidence, not the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal cases.

For its part, the Justice Department had a higher standard for filing charges against Wilson than did local prosecutors (no option of considering a manslaughter charge). In the end, the Justice Department said that while Wilson may have been "mistaken in his interpretation of Brown’s conduct" and may "have acted with poor judgment," there were no grounds for criminal charges.

Even with its lower burden of proof, the civil case isn't an easy one for Mr. Gray and fellow plaintiffs' attorneys. A trial would sift the credibility of various witnesses in a more open setting than the Justice Department or grand jury reviews. But those previous investigations suggest that, if the process undercuts some aspects of Wilson's testimony, it will also raise doubts about some witness testimony that's sympathetic to Brown.

The wrongful-death civil suit also brings various charges against the city of Ferguson, including the use of excessive force and constitutionally “unreasonable” stops and detentions. It also alleges civil rights violations and a failure to conduct a fair investigation into Brown’s death.

For example, it says that after the shooting, Wilson returned to the police station, washed his hands, and “cleared and bagged the gun.” He therefore “tampered” with evidence, the suit says.

Brown’s parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., are the plaintiffs, and the defendants are the city, former Police Chief Thomas Jackson, and Wilson.

Brown’s parents are seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as orders for reforms and monitoring to prevent racial bias and undue use of force by Ferguson police.

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