St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell met with the family of the late Michael Brown on Thursday, July 30 to tell them that he will not charge Darren Wilson in connection with the killing of their son.
“By Missouri’s legal standards, not only would I have to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but I also would have to disprove a self-defense argument beyond a reasonable doubt,” Bell told The American. “I can’t ethically charge him. It would violate the ethical standards of my profession.”
At a press conference after speaking with the families, Bell said they agreed that the conversations would remain private.
Bell said he did not want to “re-litigate” the evidence that led to this conclusion, because the evidence is all in the public domain. His investigation, which he conducted over the course of five months with his newly formed Conviction and Incident Review Unit, relied upon the same evidence reviewed by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and Bell’s predecessor as county prosecutor, Bob McCulloch. They both also declined to bring charges against Wilson.
The DOJ’s 2015 report on the shooting, which is better organized than the trove of evidence previously released by McCulloch, is 86 pages long and includes the testimony of 148 witnesses.
“Witness accounts suggesting that Brown was standing still with his hands raised in an unambiguous signal of surrender when Wilson shot Brown are inconsistent with the physical evidence, are otherwise not credible because of internal inconsistencies, or are not credible because of inconsistencies with other credible evidence,” the DOJ concluded.
“In contrast, Wilson’s account of Brown’s actions, if true, would establish that the shootings were not objectively unreasonable under the relevant Constitutional standards governing an officer’s use of deadly force. Multiple credible witnesses corroborate virtually every material aspect of Wilson’s account and are consistent with the physical evidence.”
The DOJ was strongly influenced by the evidence of a struggle between Brown and Wilson that preceded the fatal shooting.
“Under the law, Wilson has a strong argument that he was justified in firing his weapon at Brown as he continued to advance toward him and refuse commands to stop,” the DOJ concluded, “and the law does not require Wilson to wait until Brown was close enough to physically assault Wilson.”
The protest movement sparked by Brown’s killing has heightened public awareness that the law provides special protections for police officers, but prosecutors are compelled to base charging decisions on the law as it exists.
“This case exposes the limits of the law,” Bell said. “But I raised my right hand when I took this job. I swore to uphold the law.”
The most pertinent U.S. Supreme Court opinions for this case are in Tennessee v. Garner (1985) and Graham v. Connor (1989), where police use of deadly force was ruled to be a seizure governed under the Fourth Amendment. The court ruled that police only violate the Fourth Amendment when they act unreasonably — and insist this be judged from the officer’s point of view.
“The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation,” Justice Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion on Graham.
It seems difficult to believe, since the young man’s body was left lying in the street for four and a half hours and his killing sparked a protest movement that is still going strong six years later, but the entire incident between Wilson and Brown — from Wilson telling Brown to stop walking in Canfield Drive to the fatal shooting — lasted only about two minutes.
“There were many points in this tragedy where things could have gone differently,” Bell said. “This does not exonerate Darren Wilson of all wrong-doing. But I can’t prove that Darren Wilson committed murder or manslaughter.”
Though Bell came to the same conclusion about Darren Wilson as Bob McCulloch — whose handling of the case contributed greatly to his losing to Bell in the 2018 Democratic primary — the two men came to very different conclusions about Michael Brown.
“I do believe when my predecessor stood at that podium and announced the results of his investigation that he did a hit job on Michael Brown and tarnished his memory,” Bell said.
“In no way do I dishonor Michael Brown’s memory. He did start a transformative movement. He even changed the way I investigate the police and assist victims of police violence. I honor his legacy.”
At the press conference, Bell announced that once in-person grand jury proceedings resume, they will all be recorded — another legacy of Michael Brown. Bell said McCulloch was “adamantly against” recording grand jury proceedings but made an exception for Wilson.
“I believe due process is for everyone,” Bell said.
The outcome of the due process Bell accorded to Wilson was not received well by Tory Russell, a frontline Ferguson protestor who attended the press conference in the St. Louis County Courts Building in Clayton. Systemic change resulting from Michael Brown’s death did not satisfy Russell. He had expected the county’s first Black chief prosecutor to take Darren Wilson to trial.
“This is your first and last term!” Russell fumed. “I knocked doors for you! This is your last term! You are gone!”
St. Louis County Police officers came scurrying to the disturbance as the protestor’s voice boomed in the courthouse and the prosecutor left the court room.