The six .40 caliber slugs Darren Wilson pumped into Michael Brown on Ferguson’s Canfield Drive four years ago killed the 18-year old, sparked a rebellion, and started a white backlash that helped to elect Donald Trump.
Brown’s death in August, 2014 was an explosion that sent sparks in every direction. Black Lives Matter had existed since Trayvon Martin was murdered but took off nationally after Brown’s killing. Tense national conversations about white cops killing young black men took on new urgency. Ferguson went from being Florissant’s little brother to internationally recognized code for white police violence and black resistance.
While the national and international effects were far-reaching, one very important local matter is still left unattended 51 months later: Darren Wilson has still never had a day in open court, nor has he ever been charged with a crime.
On paper, the reason is that a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Wilson in November 2014, a decision, depending on which side you were on, that either sparked an uprising or a riot. The U.S. Justice Department also ruled that there was not enough evidence to charge Wilson with federal civil rights violations, while then-Attorney General Eric Holder warned at the time that there was a “high standard” of proof in civil rights cases.
And there it sat until another August rolled around, and insurgent candidate and criminal justice reformer Wesley Bell defeated St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who had held the office since 1991. Bell, a Ferguson city councilman and the son of a cop, ran on a reform platform, focused on reducing the number of non-violent offenders jailed because they couldn’t come up with cash bail. He never mentioned Darren Wilson.
But it was dissatisfaction with the way McCulloch handled the Wilson grand jury that led to Bell’s victory. First, there was McCulloch’s dumping almost every single piece of evidence on the grand jury – a “document dump” in the words of legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, that buried grand jurors under a mountain of often contradictory evidence, leading to confusion and doubt.
Harvard law professor Ronald Sullivan called it “a problematic use of the grand jury to get the result (McCulloch) wanted.” Washington lawyer Eric Citron, who was a U.S. Supreme Court Clerk for both Justices Sandra Day O’Conner and Elena Kagan, wrote, “The grand jury was willing to protect Wilson because (McCulloch) was willing to let it.”
Besides that, McCulloch allowed his lawyers to confuse the grand jury even further by first saying they should base any decision on Missouri law about when a cop can use deadly force, and then telling them to ignore that law because it allows police to shoot someone who is running away and is, therefore, unconstitutional. When confused grand jurors attempted to ask questions, McCulloch’s lawyers cut them off.
The cherry on McCulloch’s grand jury sundae came when he allowed witness number 40 to testify, knowing that she was lying. The witness, a Kirkwood woman named Sandy McElroy, claimed that she saw Michael Brown rush Wilson “with his head down, like a football player,” which led Wilson to fear for his life. McElroy was nowhere near Ferguson when Brown was killed. She had lied to police before.
Yet McCulloch put her on the stand to testify to the grand jury. A month after the grand jury’s decision not to indict resulted in violence, McCulloch smoothly admitted that she wasn’t the only false witness he put on the stand.
“Clearly, some of them were lying,” McCulloch told KTRS radio. “Early on I decided that anyone who claimed to have witnessed anything would be presented to the grand jury.” He also added that none of the liars he knowingly had testify before the grand jury would be prosecuted.
McCulloch never faced immediate consequences because he had won another four-year term around the time Brown was gunned down. But voters remembered, and in 2018 McCulloch was voted out of office.
Shortly before the August election that Bell won, a robocall from a Springfield, Missouri number went out to tens of thousands of St. Louis County households. Disguised as a “poll,” the recorded call ominously warned that Bell would “re-open racial wounds in our community by attempting to prosecute Darren Wilson.” The recorded voice then asked people if they would support any unnamed write-in candidate against Bell in the general election if that candidate would promise not to indict Wilson.
The GOP didn’t field a candidate against Bell, but 30,000 St. Louis County voters did write in someone’s name on their ballots anyway. It didn’t matter, since Bell got around 300,000 votes, but it did show that the ghost of Michael Brown and a very much alive Darren Wilson still haunt a lot of people.
For his part, Bell has steadfastly refused to comment on whether a new Darren Wilson grand jury is a possibility, preferring instead to focus on reforming the cash bail system and taking a close look at how the poor and the non-white are most likely to be locked up for non-violent, often minor, offenses. But while Bell focuses on broader criminal justice reform, putting Darren Wilson on trial for killing Brown has been on the minds of a lot of people who voted for him.
Those people are right. Despite social media groups like Facebook’s “Friends of Darren Wilson” and comments from white officers on local police chat boards claiming the grand jury and federal civil rights decisions settled the case, the opposite is true.
What appears to be blatant prosecutorial misconduct by McCulloch’s office clearly tainted the grand jury process. Darren Wilson has never received his day in court because of that. The last we heard of Wilson, in 2015, he was living “somewhere in the St. Louis area,” making a living at a series of menial jobs because no police department would hire him. The key word there is “living.” Wilson is still alive. Michael Brown is not.
It’s time for a new prosecutor to convene a new Darren Wilson grand jury.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.