A guide to the latest news from the Ferguson case and grand jury investigation
As a St. Louis County grand jury weighs whether to indict Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, a series of leaks have provided new information about the skirmish that led to Brown’s death and ignited a national debate about race and police violence. A lot has happened since Brown died after a confrontation with Wilson on Aug. 9. Here’s a guide to making sense of it:
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch obtained Brown’s official autopsy report on Oct. 22, which indicates he was shot near the right thumb at very close range. Medical experts interviewed by the paper said the findings may support Wilson’s contention that Brown was reaching for the officer’s gun inside the police SUV where their original struggle occurred. A separate autopsy conducted for Brown’s family by Dr. Michael Baden, a well-known forensic pathologist, concluded that none of the teen’s wounds indicated he was shot at such close range.
Wilson told investigators that Brown punched him in the face through the open window of the vehicle, according to the Post-Dispatch. In Wilson’s version of events, the punch prompted him to draw his gun and Brown grabbed for it. As they struggled over the weapon, Brown was shot in the hand. According to Wilson, Brown then ran away from the vehicle, so the officer jumped out to give chase. Wilson reportedly told investigators that Brown defied the officer’s command to stop, then turned and ran at him, at which point Wilson fired the fatal shots.
According to the Washington Post, “a half-dozen unnamed black witnesses” have provided testimony to the grand jury that supports Wilson’s version of events. Brown’s blood was found on the gun, on Wilson’s uniform and spattered on an inside door panel of the car, according to the New York Times. Other witnesses have provided divergent accounts of the incident, alleging that Brown was shot with his hands in the air or while fleeing. Protesters pictured with their hands-up became one of the iconic images of the unrest that wracked Ferguson in the weeks after Brown’s death.
In many ways, the leaks amplify what we already knew. From the beginning, the Ferguson police department has said publicly that Wilson shot Brown after the teen instigated a struggle in the SUV that made the officer fear for his safety. Independent witnesses have said there was a scuffle, though they differ on whether it happened in or near Wilson’s vehicle. Apart from detailed forensic information about Brown’s wounds, the autopsy includes a toxicology report indicating the presence of marijuana in Brown’s system. Previously released surveillance video shows Brown stealing a pack of Swisher Sweets, cheap cigars that are commonly used to roll blunts, from a convenience store shortly before the altercation with Wilson. But that incident had nothing to do with the confrontation, which occurred after Wilson ordered Brown and a friend to move onto the sidewalk as they walked down the middle of a street.
How important is this information?
The details of the struggle in the SUV matter. In Missouri, as elsewhere, a police officer has wide latitude to use deadly force if he has justifiable reason to feel his life is in danger. If forensic information and witness testimony support Wilson’s account that Brown grabbed for his gun, the grand jury—or, in the event of an indictment, a trial jury—would ostensibly be more likely to determine that the use of force was justified.
What don’t the leaks tell us?
They don’t explain the origin of the skirmish, which seems to have escalated abruptly. In describing the toxicology report, the Post’s sources say “the levels in Brown’s body may have been high enough to trigger hallucinations,” but there is no scientific link between marijuana and violent behavior.
Most importantly, the leaks do not provide new forensic information about the sequence of fatal shots. “What we want to know is why Officer Wilson shot Michael Brown multiple times and killed him even though he was more than 20 feet away from his patrol car,” Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Brown’s family, said in a statement. “This is the crux of the matter!” The autopsy does not offer any answers.
What’s going on with the grand jury?
Robert McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, has said that he expects the deliberations to wrap up this month or next. The grand jury process has been unusual in a number of ways, as TIME reported last month.
Prosecutors declined to recommend a specific charge for Wilson, which is rare. Instead, they are presenting evidence as it becomes available, and allowing the grand jury members to determine whether it warrants charges of murder or manslaughter. (There are two options for each charge: first- or second-degree murder; and voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.)
All testimony in the case is being transcribed, which is unusual because it exposes witnesses to future legal proceedings. McCulloch has delegated the task of presenting evidence to two attorneys in his office in an attempt to neutralize allegations that he lacks objectivity. (McCulloch’s father, a police officer, died in the line of duty, and African Americans have criticized his handling of past police shootings.) In another rare move, McCulloch has pledged to immediately release transcripts of the proceedings. According to the prosecutor’s office, these decisions were made in the interest of transparency, though it may also be an attempt to head off criticism in the event that the grand jury declines to indict Wilson.
Is there a motive for the leaks?
It’s a criminal act to leak information about grand jury proceedings, so the number of leaks the investigation has sprung in recent days is conspicuous. The Department of Justice, which is conducting its own inquiry into the shooting, has condemned the trickle of information.“There seems to be an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case,” it said on Oct. 22.
The leaks have also raised questions about whether sources connected to the investigation are spreading this information to prepare the community for the possibility that the grand jury declines to indict. The information that has leaked suggests the likelihood of that may be greater than protesters realize.
How is Ferguson reacting?
The daily demonstrations are ongoing. Protests tapered off in the weeks after Brown’s death, but the Oct. 8 killing of Vonderrit Myers, a black 18-year-old shot by an off-duty St. Louis police officer, rekindled the community’s fury. (Cops say Myers fired at the officer first; forensic evidence released by the police department, including lab results that reportedly show gunpowder residue on Myers’ hand and in the waistband of his jeans, appear to corroborate that version of events. Myers’ family says they believe he was unarmed.)
Thousands of people massed in St. Louis in mid-October for coordinated protests following Myers’ death. There were some arrests and sporadic clashes between demonstrators and law enforcement, but nothing on the scale of the August riots. But it was enough to upset the fragile peace that had set in during September and on Oct. 21, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced the formation of a commission to address issues like race relations.
The recent autopsy and other leaks have fanned the flames in Ferguson. That anger is likely a mere preview of how the community will react if Wilson is cleared. “If there is no indictment,” said one protester, “all hell is going to break loose.”
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