Sunday, December 6, 2020

Amid Conflicting Accounts, Trusting Darren Wilson

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In four hours of vivid testimony before the St. Louis County grand jury in September describing his shooting of Michael Brown, the officer said Mr. Brown, 18, had looked “like a demon” when he first approached him.

The officer described himself as utterly terrified when, he said, Mr. Brown reached into his police vehicle and fought him for his gun. Mr. Brown was so physically overpowering that the officer, who is 6-foot-4, similar to Mr. Brown, said he “felt like a 5-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan.”

The officer’s testimony, along with thousands of pages of grand jury documents, including contradictory witness accounts, appeared to have helped convince some of the jurors that the officer had committed no crime when he killed Mr. Brown.

Documents Released in the Ferguson Case

The St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch, said he had released the documents to show people how thorough the grand jury inquiry had been and to convince the public that justice had been done.

But the failure to bring any charges against a white officer who shot an unarmed black teenager in murky circumstances has set off a new storm of protests and questions about the objectivity of the grand jury process.

In an unusual step, Mr. McCulloch had said he would present all known witnesses and evidence and instead of recommending an indictment, as is usually the case, let the jurors decide for themselves what if any charges to bring.

The officer’s testimony, delivered without the cross-examination of a trial in the earliest phase of the three-month inquiry, was the only direct account of the fatal encounter. It appeared to form the spine of a narrative that unfolded before the jurors over three months, buttressed, the prosecutors said, by the most credible witnesses, forensic evidence and three autopsies.

But the gentle questioning of Officer Wilson revealed in the transcripts, and the sharp challenges prosecutors made to witnesses whose accounts seemed to contradict his narrative, have led some to question whether the process was as objective as Mr. McCulloch claims.

Lawyers for Mr. Brown’s family, who maintained all along that Officer Wilson should be charged with a crime so he could be tried in public, said that Monday’s decision and the voluminous transcripts only reinforced their suspicions.

Some of the images presented as evidence to the St. Louis County grand jury, including Officer Darren Wilson’s gun, broken glass from his official vehicle and Michael Brown’s hat. Credit Photographs via St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office

“This grand jury decision we feel is a direct reflection of the sentiments of those who presented the evidence,” Anthony Gray, a lawyer for the relatives, said at a news conference Tuesday morning. “If you present evidence to indict, you get an indictment. If you present evidence not to indict, you don’t get an indictment.”

Officer Wilson, in his testimony, described the encounter in terms that dovetailed with a state law authorizing an officer’s use of deadly force: He sought to show that he had reason to believe that Mr. Brown posed a serious danger to himself or to others. He described Mr. Brown as crazed and himself as fearing for his life, first in the police vehicle and moments later in the street after, he said, he ordered the fleeing Mr. Brown to halt. Officer Wilson then shot him repeatedly, according to his account, after Mr. Brown charged at him.

But when no one asked him why he had chased Mr. Brown, Officer Wilson brought it up himself, saying that after experiencing Mr. Brown’s aggression in the vehicle, he felt “he still posed a threat, not only to me, but to anybody else that confronted him.”

Unusual Process

Most grand jury proceedings are swift and simple: A few witnesses are called, the prosecutor makes the case for an indictment and the jurors vote.

But the grand jury in the Brown case met for an extraordinarily long session, hearing what the prosecutor said was “absolutely everything” that could be considered testimony or evidence in the case. While what happens in the grand jury room is almost always kept secret, Mr. McCulloch insisted on releasing the transcripts of the proceedings immediately after the session ended.

The jurors met in a St. Louis County courthouse on 25 separate days. They heard 70 hours of testimony from about 60 witnesses. And they confronted a jumble of forensics reports, police radio logs, medical documents and tapes of F.B.I. interviews with bystanders. Nine of the 12 jurors would have had to agree in order to bring a criminal indictment; the actual vote is secret.

After three months of hearing evidence, the grand jury began its deliberations about 3 p.m. on Friday. The jurors met again on Monday, and by midday they were finished.

Though the encounter between Officer Wilson and Mr. Brown lasted only a matter of minutes, witness testimony revealed an array of variations, some subtle and some flatly contradictory. Witness after witness took the stand to describe the brief encounter and usually agreed on the broadest strokes: how it began with the struggle at the window of Officer Wilson’s police S.U.V., leading to the first shots, and ended with Dorian Johnson, who had been walking with Mr. Brown, shouting, “They killed him,” and crowds descending on the scene.

One of the photos of Officer Darren Wilson, taken following the shooting, that were provided to the grand jury as evidence. (Credit St. Louis County Prosecutor)

Many witnesses said they first began to pay attention while the two were wrestling at the S.U.V. window, though they usually said they could not see enough to know what was going on. But even when the confrontation broke out into the open — when Officer Wilson chased the teenager, ordered him to halt and then fired two volleys of five shots — the accounts diverged.

“I see the officer running behind shooting,” one witness said.

“He did not take off running after Michael,” another said to the prosecutors.

Some witnesses, whom Mr. McCulloch described as the most credible and consistent, hewed more closely to Officer Wilson’s account.

“I could say for sure he never put his hands up,” said a man who was working in the area and did not live there, and whose testimony strongly bolstered Officer Wilson’s case. “He ran to the officer full charge.”

“Yes, I personally saw him on his knees with his hands in the air,” one witness said in a recorded interview with federal officials that was played for the grand jury before he testified. The prosecutor questioning that witness did not hide her skepticism, highlighting the contradictions in his various accounts.

“Basically just about everything that you said on Aug. 13, and much of what you said today, isn’t consistent with the physical evidence that we have in this case, O.K.?” she said to him.

Witnesses Challenged

Michael Brown

Prosecutors did not seem to shy from pointing out the discrepancies between multiple interviews of a single witness, or at some points exploring the criminal history of some witnesses, including Mr. Johnson, Mr. Brown’s friend.

Though the prosecutors did not press Officer Wilson and other law enforcement officials about some contradictions in their testimony, they did challenge other witnesses about why their accounts had varied.

Several were asked if they felt any pressure to conform to a certain story line, or if they felt fearful about their recollections differing from the popular narrative in the streets. Some did acknowledge such fears, while others were shown to have delivered wholly unreliable accounts.

An older man in a nearby housing complex dismissed the notion that Mr. Brown had raised his hands to the sky, as some claimed, in a gesture that became a symbol for the protest movement in Ferguson. But the man was adamant that Mr. Brown had never charged at Officer Wilson, only staggered toward him, wounded, his arms outstretched in a gesture of surrender.

“He had his hands up, palm facing the officer like, ‘O.K., you got me,’ ” the man recalled, adding at a later point that he had once been shot himself so he knew what it felt like. The prosecutor pointed out that the distance Mr. Brown covered after turning was farther than the witness remembered, and a juror questioned the witness as to whether he could really judge how menacing Mr. Brown had appeared to Officer Wilson.

Still this man’s testimony was like that of several others, in that it neither matched up perfectly with Officer Wilson’s account nor with the accounts of those most sympathetic to Mr. Brown. Many witnesses expressed uncertainty about the moment when Mr. Brown stopped and turned and what led Officer Wilson to start shooting. “That is something I wrestle with to this day,” said a witness whose account lined up particularly with Officer Wilson’s, though even it diverged on a couple of crucial points, like whether the officer shouted commands for Mr. Brown to stop fleeing.

Wealth of Evidence

As the weeks went by, the grand jury studied the brief encounter between Officer Wilson and Mr. Brown from seemingly every possible angle, hearing forensic testimony one day, going as a group to examine a police vehicle similar to Officer Wilson’s on another. On Nov. 11, the prosecutors questioned a former superior of Officer Wilson’s from another police force, asking about his relationship with the African-American community as well as standard police practices governing the use of deadly force. (The witness had nothing but positive things to say about Officer Wilson.)

A crime scene investigator described swabbing Officer Wilson’s gun; the subsequent DNA report found Mr. Brown’s genetic material on Officer Wilson’s Sig Sauer pistol. Similarly, DNA from Mr. Brown was also found on the officer’s uniform pants and shirt.

In his testimony, Officer Wilson told jurors that Mr. Brown had grabbed his gun while the two scuffled at the vehicle. Feeling threatened, Officer Wilson said, he fired the gun twice, once striking Mr. Brown in the hand and leaving blood splattered inside the vehicle. Asked why he did not use a Taser stun gun, the officer said he found them unwieldy and did not have one.

The medical examiner who performed the initial autopsy showed the grand jury close to 100 gruesome photos of the gunshot wounds from every angle, giving exhaustive descriptions and lessons in the physics of such wounds.

Shawn Parcells, who assisted with an autopsy of Michael Brown, on Monday, Aug. 18. (NBC News)

He described the soot, or unburned gunpowder, on a graze wound on Mr. Brown’s hand, proof that it was shot at a range of six to nine inches.

Over the months, the jurors seemed to focus intently on the final movement that Mr. Brown may have made toward Officer Wilson, after a brief chase. The prosecutor asked witness after witness if it seemed as if Mr. Brown were reaching for a weapon, though few said they saw anything like that. Mr. Brown was found to be unarmed.

Jurors asked whether Mr. Brown, when he was said to be moving toward Officer Wilson, seemed to have “any kind of expression, a blank look, aggressive look or anything.” They also had seemingly come to memorize the distances and challenged witnesses on their memories of the geography of the confrontation.

Forensic evidence was also presented that supported Officer Wilson’s statement that Mr. Brown was moving toward him after the first volley of bullets.

The distance from the front wheel of the officer’s S.U.V. to Mr. Brown’s body was 153 feet, 9 inches, an investigator said. Farther away from the car, the investigator showed with photographs, were two blood-spatter patterns — evidence that Mr. Brown was moving toward the officer, and the car, when he was killed in the second flurry of shots.

The medical examiner described the succession of bullet wounds to the chest and face that, in his view, would not have immediately incapacitated Mr. Brown. The prosecutors repeatedly questioned the doctor about this, driving home that Mr. Brown could have still been mobile (and dangerous) after the initial gunshot wounds.

They seemed intent on emphasizing this point, which supports Officer Wilson’s description of Mr. Brown lunging toward him despite serious wounds.

A final shot through the top of Mr. Brown’s head, the medical experts all agreed, felled him almost instantly.

After the shooting, Officer Wilson was taken to a hospital, where a doctor found that he had a “facial contusion,” the medical term for a bruise, apparently from the struggle in the vehicle. He was given a prescription for an anti-inflammatory drug.

On Friday afternoon, the jurors indicated that they were ready to begin deliberating. The two assistant St. Louis County prosecutors who had presented the case gave them information on the charges that they could possibly bring against Officer Wilson: murder, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.

“We were trying to give you a balanced presentation of the evidence,” Sheila Whirley, one of the prosecutors, told the jurors in summary. “And I think you are going to make the right decision.”

Source: New York Times

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