News & Politics

Ferguson Decision: No Justice for Family of Michael Brown

No criminal charges were brought against Officer Darren Wilson.

There will be no justice for the family of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

After three months of deliberations, a 12-member grand jury in St. Louis County, Missouri, did not find probable cause to press charges against Darren Wilson, a white 28-year-old Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, during a daytime confrontation on August 9.

The decision, which was announced on Monday night by prosecutors and preceded by an appeal for calm from Missouri’s Democratic Governor Jay Nixon, was predicted by the Brown family’s legal team. The governor, who declared a state of emergency before the announcement, said that local churches would be open as “safe havens” if violence broke out. Turmoil is expected because the killing has become a symbol of deep and enduring institutional racism and excessive policing in communities of color.

“The grand jury considered whether Wilson was the initial aggressor in this case, or whether Darren Wilson was authorized as a law enforcement officer to use deadly force in this situation, or if he acted in self-defense,” said St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch. “They determined that no probable cause exists to file any charge against Officer Wilson and and returned a ‘no-true’ [probable cause] bill on each of the five [possible killing-related] indictments.”  

“The physical and scientific evidence examined by the grand jury, combined with the witness statements, supported and combined with that physical evidence, tells the accurate and tragic story of what happened,” McColloch continued, saying that the Ferguson police officer first heard about a local convenience store robbery suspect before stopping Brown, who matched that description.  

McColloch said that the local police shared all of their evidence with the FBI, which has launched its own investigation under federal civil rights law, and would make that record public after his press announcement. He said those two investigations occurred in a sea of misinformation circulated by protesters and the media, including witnesses who later withdrew their testimony about seeing Brown gunned down.    

The Brown family’s attorneys have said they did not expect a fair shake from prosecutors in St. Louis, a city with enduring racial divides where the authorities almost always side with the police. They pointed to Ferguson Police Dept. leaks to the media to smear Michael Brown’s character following his killing, plus additional leaks during the secret grand jury proceedings—notably an autopsy report that Brown had not been shot multiple times in the back. These leaks suggested Wilson would not face charges, even for an unintended killing—second-degree murder or manslaughter—as Missouri law and jury instructions strongly defer to the use of deadly force by onduty police officers.

The decision underscores for many Americans and especially communities of color, that justice in America and the legal system are not the same. The grand jury’s decision was expected to spark new waves of protests across the country, if not immediately after Monday's announcement, then in coming days.

Several hundred protesters gathered outside the Ferguson Police Department on Monday night. As the 8pm local time announcement neared, the mood became tense, according to video feeds and tweets. Some protesters chanted, “We’ve got to fight back." They grew silent as McCulloch made his announcement and then erupted afterward, mixing indignation with resignation. 

Across the country, civil rights leaders predicted the highly emotional case would provoke strong reactions. On Monday in the San Francisco Bay Area, clergymen were planning to hold vigils and open forums in churches, Amos C. Brown, a NAACP national board member and prominent local minister, asked KQED-FM. “Why is it that violence is commonplace in the African-American community?” 

“We are saying when the decision comes down regardless of what the decision is people should be out in the streets,” said D’Andre Teeter, a local organizer and member of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network. “There should be no business as usual in the country.”     

In Atlanta, protests are expected on Tuesday, according to AtlantaWordWorks.com, a group that usually promotes poetry but sent out a release late Monday “to express the moral outrage our communities are experiencing in Georgia, regarding racially charged police murders and state sanctioned violence.” 

Voilent protests erupted in Ferguson and across the country in the hours following the grand jury's announcement. In Ferguson, businesses were vandalized, police cars burned and gunshots were fired. 

"This is not about vandalizing," Brian Redmon, 31, told a New York Times reporter in Ferguson as a police car burned before them. "This is about fighting a police organization that doesdn't care about the lives they serve." 

Racial Bias In Law

Brown’s attorneys had been hoping for a second-degree murder charge, which is when a person knowingly causes the death of another. Eyewitnesses have said there was an initial scuffle between Brown and Wilson by the police car’s driver’s door, and then Wilson fired at Brown as he initially was running away—but then stopped and faced Wilson. But jury instructions in Missouri, which are read to the panel before it decides whether to press charges or not, allow police to use deadly force if the officer believes it is “immediately necessary.” 

The St. Louis County grand jury’s decision, under state law, is only the first expected action from the legal system concerning the death of Michael Brown. The Department of Justice has also been investigating under federal civil rights laws. It has not yet made any announcement on when its decision on pressing charges might be issued, although many legal commentators have said the likelihood of a Justice Department prosecution is slim.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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