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The Key Moment in the Ferguson Grand Jury Testimony

5 minute read

The story that drove the riots in Ferguson last August was this: an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, 18, had been killed in cold blood by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, on Aug. 9.

Grand jury proceedings made public Monday evening by the St. Louis County prosecutor tell a different story. The witness testimony and physical evidence all show there was a confrontation through the window of Wilson’s Chevy Tahoe that day. The fight resulted in shots fired from Wilson’s sidearm that wounded Brown.

But the new clarity has already given way to another confusion: what happened next? After Brown was shot he staggered away from the police vehicle and Wilson got out of the car. From there, witness testimony becomes contradictory. The forensic evidence shows, and most eyewitness accounts agree, that the final shots were fired after Brown turned to Wilson and began moving back towards him. But there is little consensus over Brown’s intentions as he did, and whether his hands were raised in a threatening manner or attempting to show surrender.

Here are some of the key witness accounts of what happened when the two faced off for a second, deadly encounter:

Unidentified witness:

“I saw him in the middle of the street on his knees with hands up. Officer came up to him and shot him in his head and he fell.”

Unidentified witness:

“He was walking at a moderate pace to where he has his arms up, he was walking like this at a moderate pace. There was no running whatsoever.”

Unidentified witness

Q: Was his arms up the way you showed us when he was being shot?

A: Yes, about, like his palms were out facing forward, they were about at his ears, I’d say, like shoulders, about like that.

Q: Okay. What did that mean to you to have your arms like that?

A: That meant surrender, that meant take me to jail.

Unidentified witness

A: …The officer had ran, he was running after him. He had stopped, I heard him say get down about two or three times and he kind of veered off to the side a little bit, but he still was aiming his gun at the guy, at Michael. And he after, he held his gun out at him, he was aiming the gun at him, he was telling him to get down. And like I said, Michael was shuffling back and forth like he was confused and then he started running and that’s when I started hearing him shoot.

Q: While he was running toward the officer?

A: Kind of towards the officer. I couldn’t be sure if he was running exactly towards the officer or just trying to run past him.

Q: But he was running in the officer’s direction?

A: He was running pretty much our direction. The officer was pretty much between us and Michael.

Q: And the officer was saying stop or get down?

A: Get down.

Q: And could you hear Michael say anything?

A: I didn’t hear him say anything. He was trying to run. He was running and he had his hands down in like a running stance.

Q: Look like he was charging at the officer?

A: I couldn’t be sure if he was trying to charge the officer or run past him.

Wilson’s testimony:

His hand was in a fist at his side, this one is in his waistband under his shirt, and he was like this. Just coming straight at me like he was going to run right through me. And when he gets about that 8 to 10 feet away, I look down, I remember looking at my sites [sic] and firing, all I see is his head and that’s what I shot. I don’t know how many, I know at least once because I saw the last one go into him. And then when it went into him, the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone, it was gone, I mean, I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped.

Ultimately it was the grand jury’s responsibility, after weeks of testimony and days of deliberation, to pass judgment on the credibility of the witnesses and to weigh their words against the physical evidence to determine whether there was probable cause to issue an indictment.

Before they made that judgment, the jurors were given the following instructions from St. Louis County prosecutor Kathi Alizadeh, who set a high bar for jurors to return a true bill against Wilson. Alizadeh compared it to “proving a negative”:

“You must find probable cause to believe that Darren Wilson did not act in lawful self-defense and you must find probable cause to believe that Darren Wilson did not use lawful force in making an arrest,” Alizadeh instructed the grand jurors. “And only if you find those things, which is kind of like finding a negative, you cannot return an indictment on anything or true bill unless you find both of those things.”

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