Michael Brown’s death exposed to the nation the deep-seated and longstanding pain felt by the greater St. Louis community and the entire country. For decades leading up to the 2014 shooting, law enforcement in Ferguson and around the country overpoliced communities of color, used disproportionate and unnecessary force, and violated many citizens’ constitutional rights far too often. When we look around today, we still see it occurring.
When Michael Brown died, this community’s grief and anger exploded, and people took to the streets to protest. Shortly thereafter, the Department of Justice came into our community and documented the terrible abuse in a lengthy report that did not mince words or spare feelings. That report recounted how the police used dogs to unjustly attack our residents, how hefty fines and fees were levied on the poor, and how people of color were often arrested without probable cause or at times even any cause at all. If people across the country had questions about why people filled the streets nightly following the shooting, this report laid them bare.
Because of the significance of this case to this community, and because the family asked me to, I believed it was necessary to conduct a reexamination of the evidence in the case and come to our own conclusion as to whether Darren Wilson committed a crime under Missouri law when he shot Michael Brown. Our newly formed Conviction and Incident Review Unit conducted a five-month review of the evidence, examining thousands of pages of witness statements, forensic reports, and other evidence.
Although this case represents one of the most significant moments in St. Louis history, the question for this office was a simple one: could we prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that when Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, he committed murder or manslaughter under Missouri law. After an independent and in-depth review of the evidence, we cannot prove that he did.
Out of respect for Michael Brown and for his family, I do not intend to relitigate the evidence in this case. These facts have been aired in public time and again, and this is a time for us to reflect on Michael’s life, to support Michael’s family, and to honor a transformative movement that will be forever linked to his memory.
This is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do as an elected official. My heart breaks for Michael’s father, Michael Brown Sr., and for his mother, Lesley McSpadden. I know this is not the result they have been looking for, and that their pain will continue forever.
I also want to be clear that our investigation does not exonerate Darren Wilson. The question of whether we can prove a case at trial is different than clearing him of any and all wrongdoing. There are so many points at which Darren Wilson could have handled the situation differently, and if he had, Michael Brown might still be alive. But that is not the question before us; the only question is whether we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime occurred. The answer to that question is no, and I would violate my ethical duties if I nonetheless brought charges.
There are things, however, that we must do to honor both Michael Brown’s memory and the demands that arose from this community in the wake of his death. It is what this community is owed. It is what the family of Michael Brown is owed. It is what Michael is owed.
We have already started investigating police involved shootings differently than under previous administrations, and we will continue to improve the way we both investigate these cases and support victims every day. First, we now have an independent unit tasked exclusively with investigating cases involving police use of force, along with exonerating the innocent. That office is walled off from the rest of our office and is run by an experienced prosecutor. We hope this increases the community’s trust that we take these cases seriously, do everything we can to protect against bias, and understand the gravity and seriousness with which they must be treated.
We are also changing the way we support victims of police violence. The Brown family experienced unspeakable loss in August of 2014, and yet they received no support from the Prosecuting Attorney’s office as they tried to heal. There will be times, like this one, where we cannot ethically prosecute a case given the state of the law or the facts, but that does not mean we cannot provide support for each family. For every victim of police violence going forward, including their families, we will offer support services. We will help connect people with trauma care and social workers and mental health providers—the things that people need to help mend the loss they are experiencing, even if they cannot fully repair it.
We are also announcing today that, as soon as COVID allows for it, all grand jury proceedings in homicide cases will be recorded, so that all potential defendants get the same protections that Darren Wilson received. Due process shouldn’t just be for police officers and the politically connected; it should be for all citizens.
Finally, our office has also worked to reduce the jail population for low-level and nonviolent offenders in Saint Louis County by dismissing cases where there is no public safety benefit to arrest or prosecution, encouraging the use of summonses instead of arrests and warrants, and dramatically expanding diversion opportunities. Thus far, we have reduced the jail population for low-level and nonviolent offenders by close to 30%. We will continue to grow these programs throughout my tenure.
These steps, I am sure, bring no comfort to Mr. Brown and Ms. McSpadden, whose loss I cannot begin to imagine. This case is a tragic one, and it leaves me with a heavy heart, but more resolved to bring positive and meaningful change to this region.