The town of Ferguson is near St. Louis, Missouri. It has a population of 21,000, so it’s big enough to have a small police force. Everyone agrees that Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, around noon on August 9th. The results of the official autopsy haven’t been released yet, but it’s been reported that it will substantially agree with a second autopsy done at the family’s request: Wilson shot Brown approximately six times.
I spent some time recently trying to find out how many witnesses to the incident there were and what they had to say. It wasn’t easy, but two sites had some details. One was Wikipedia and the other was The Root. The latter is a magazine devoted to African-American news and commentary founded by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Donald Graham, Chairman and CEO of what used to be the Washington Post.
Here’s a summary based on these two sources and a statement made by the St. Louis County police chief on August 17th:
Officer Wilson ordered Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson to walk on the sidewalk, not the street. Wilson and Brown got into a physical altercation while Wilson was still in his police car. A shot was fired in the car, which may or may not have struck Brown. Wilson’s face was apparently bruised during the struggle. Brown then ran away. Wilson got out of his car, chased Brown and fired again. Apparently, none of these other shots hit Brown until Brown turned around and faced Wilson. At that point, Wilson continued to fire, killing Brown. Overall, Brown was shot four times in his right arm and twice in his head. Brown’s body ended up about 35 feet from Wilson’s car.
Whether or not Brown raised his hands to surrender after he turned around, or fell toward Wilson, or decided to move toward Wilson, is now a matter of dispute. However, the four people who claim to have seen the shooting and who have been identified so far (Dorian Johnson, Piaget Crenshaw, Tiffany Mitchell and James McKnight) all indicate that Brown wasn’t threatening Officer Wilson at that point. They suggest, in fact, that Wilson executed Brown. On the other hand, Officer Wilson, who still hasn’t been directly quoted, is said to have felt threatened. The wounds Brown suffered are consistent with Brown having surrendered and fallen toward the ground, although they don’t rule out Brown having moved toward Wilson with his head down.
If this were the only evidence presented and I was on the jury, I’d have to conclude that Officer Wilson was guilty of second-degree murder. It wouldn’t be first-degree murder, since there’s no evidence of premeditation. Firing his weapon at Brown as Brown was running away indicates Wilson’s willingness to use deadly force. The consistency of the four statements from people who apparently didn’t know each other (except for the two women, one of whom supervises the other at work) implies that Brown had stopped running and was giving up. Is there reason to doubt that this is what happened? Of course, it’s possible that Brown meant to stop Officer Wilson from firing at him by moving toward Wilson. But so far there is no good reason (which is the definition of “reasonable doubt”) to think that Wilson was in danger when he killed Brown.
At some point, it would be helpful to hear a police officer admit that the deadly force he (it always seems to be “he”) applied to some black man or some crazy person wasn’t necessary. He’d explain that he was angry and excited and fearful and his emotions took over. He’d remind us that police officers hate it when their authority is challenged. He’d also remind us that he’s only human and that having the power of life and death over one’s fellow citizens will sometimes inevitably lead to misuse of that power. He’d further admit that, when it comes right down to it, he’s like too many Americans in feeling that some people’s lives just aren’t as valuable as others, especially black people’s.
The New York Times ran an article two days ago concerning “conflicting accounts” of what happened in Ferguson. To her credit, Margaret Sullivan, the Times‘ Public Editor (which is similar to an ombudsman), points out here that:
The story goes on to quote, by name, two eyewitnesses who say that Mr. Brown had his hands up as he was fired on. As for those who posit that Mr. Brown was advancing on the officer who was afraid the teenager was going to attack him, the primary source on this seems to be what Officer Wilson told his colleagues on the police force. The Times follows this with an unattributed statement: “Some witnesses have backed up that account.” But we never learn any more than that…[The Times story] sets up an apparently equal dichotomy between named eyewitnesses on one hand and ghosts on the other.