The nation is on edge, awaiting a grand jury decision in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown — an unarmed African American teen in Ferguson, Missouri — by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson more than three months ago. The decision is expected any day and there is widespread belief, based on weeks of leaks to the media and laws that historically favor police officers in lethal force cases, that Wilson will not be indicted. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has preemptively declared a state of emergency in anticipation of protests.
Brown’s killing, the culmination of an incident that the St. Louis Post Dispatch would later report lasted no more than 90 seconds, devastated a family with high hopes for their college-bound son and sparked some of the most significant civil rights demonstrations in a generation — casting a harsh light on the disproportionate number of black men killed by police, on St. Louis County’s exploitative and racially discriminatory municipal court system, and on the militarization of law enforcement.
In the months since Brown was killed, numerous eyewitnesses have come forward to describe what they saw during the teen’s final moments, while controversial disclosures to the press have served to describe Wilson’s version of the events that day.
This is everything we know about the shooting.
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It was just past noon on August 9 when Wilson and Brown’s paths first crossed in Ferguson’s Canfield Green apartment complex. Wilson had just finished responding to a call regarding a sick infant. Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson, 22, were walking in a two-lane residential street when Wilson approached in his sport utility patrol vehicle and told them to get on the sidewalk. The precise details of what happened next have been at the center of months of protest and outrage.
Most agree on the following: There was some sort of physical struggle between Brown and Wilson while Wilson was still in his vehicle; Brown ran from the confrontation; Wilson got out of the vehicle and fatally shot Brown at least six times from a distance; Brown was unarmed; and his bleeding body lay in the hot summer sun for four hours, much of that time uncovered, as the residents of Canfield looked upon his splayed-out corpse in horror.
The Ferguson Police Department turned the investigation into Brown’s killing over to the larger St. Louis County Police Department almost immediately. The morning after Brown was killed, St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar held a press conference. With protesters shouting in the background, Blemar told reporters that Brown “physically assaulted” an unnamed officer while the officer was in his vehicle. The teen was going for the officer’s gun, the police chief said.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, left, delivers remarks as Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson listens during a news conference the day after the shooting.
“It is our understanding, at this point in the investigation, that there was a struggle over the officer’s weapon. There was at least one shot fired within the car,” Belmar said. While acknowledging that Brown was unarmed, Belmar said “more than a few” shell casings were found at the scene of the shooting but did not say how many times the officer fired, nor how many times Brown was hit.
“It was more than just a couple, but I don’t think it was many more than that,” Belmar said of the shots fired. The shooting, he said, took place roughly 35 feet from the officer’s vehicle.
Under Missouri state law, police officers are granted authority to use deadly force “in effecting an arrest or in preventing an escape from custody” if “he reasonably believes” it is necessary “to effect the arrest and also reasonably believes that the person to be arrested has committed or attempted to commit a felony…or may otherwise endanger life or inflict serious physical injury unless arrested without delay.” As an officer with the Ferguson Police Department, Wilson was also required to follow department guidelines on the use of force.
In mid-October, The New York Times published an article previewing Wilson’s official version of events, as told to the grand jury during his four-hour testimony. The disclosures were, in essence, a repeat of claims Wilson’s employer and friends had been making for months: The police officer was going about his duties when he came across a teenager who attacked him through his window and tried to steal his gun. As the story went, during the ordeal Wilson thought he might be killed so, after the teen took off running, Wilson got out of his vehicle and shot him to death.
Citing unnamed “government officials briefed on the federal civil rights investigation into the” shooting, the Times reported that two shots, not one, as previously reported, were fired inside Wilson’s vehicle and that Brown’s blood was splashed across on the interior panel of the SUV, as well as Wilson’s gun and uniform. According to the paper, “Wilson told the authorities that Mr. Brown had punched and scratched him repeatedly, leaving swelling on his face and cuts on his neck.”
The fact that Wilson testified was telling. He was not legally required to do so, and in most grand jury cases defendants do not testify because their attorney cannot be present. This move, some suggested, was an indication that Wilson and his legal counsel felt the proceedings would work to his favor.
Wilson’s decision to testify wasn’t the only unorthodox thing about the grand jury proceedings. In addition, St. Louis County’s top prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch, opted to have the grand jurors decide what charges, if any, to file against Wilson. Those charges could include murder or manslaughter. From the beginning, however, a first-degree murder charge has been considered unlikely, as it would require proving Wilson harbored a malicious intent to kill Brown. A second-degree murder charge, meanwhile, could be overcome if Wilson could successfully argue that he was in fear for his life or the lives of others at the time of the incident, and it was clear early on that Wilson would argue that he feared for his life. Wilson could face lesser charges, like voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, if the jurors find that he was negligent in the shooting.
In the secretive process of a grand jury, a prosecutor wields considerable power to influence the determination of the jurors on the question of whether or not to indict. Critics argued that by shifting this responsibility to the jurors in the Brown case, presenting them with all of the witnesses and evidence in the investigation and effectively asking the 12 citizens on the panel, including three African-Americans, to make up their own minds, McCulloch was making a half-hearted attempt to secure an indictment while simultaneously insulating himself from any criticism if Wilson walked. McCulloch also turned over the bulk of the work in the case to two veteran prosecutors from his office, further distancing himself from the day-to-day proceedings.
For weeks, protesters and supporters of the Brown family, as well as elected officials, rallied to have McCulloch removed from the case, arguing that he had a longstanding history, rooted in personal trauma, of protecting police officers in use-of-force cases. McCulloch’s father was a police officer killed in the line of duty, 50 years before Brown was gunned down, by a black man who stole his gun. Several of McCulloch’s family members, including his mother, brother, uncle, and cousin, have worked for the St. Louis Police Department. McCulloch himself had a long hoped to join the force, but after losing his leg to cancer in high school he decided to become a prosecutor. “I couldn’t become a policeman, so being county prosecutor is the next best thing,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In 2001, McCulloch oversaw a particularly controversial fatal shooting case in which two unarmed black men, caught up in a small-time drug sting, were shot 21 times in broad daylight by undercover officers at a Jack In the Box drive-through. In presenting the case to the grand jury, McCulloch said the men pulled forward at the officers, prompting them to open fire. The jurors decided not to indict the officers–who both testified–based on the evidence McCulloch presented. “These guys were bums,” McCulloch said of the deceased. The case became a flashpoint of racial tension that has been seared in the minds of many members of St. Louis County’s African American communities ever since. A subsequent investigation by The St. Louis Post Dispatch found that only three of the 13 officers involved in the sting said the vehicle moved forward; the two officers who shot and a third officer whose testimony McCulloch later described as “completely wrong.”
Outside the secretive confines of the grand jury, the accounts of multiple eyewitnesses to the shooting, relayed through the media and typically contradictory to the official police account, played a major role in driving the anger over Brown’s killing. As far as evidence goes, eyewitness testimony is far from perfect. According to the Innocence Project, a non-profit that has secured the release of hundreds of wrongfully convicted people over the last two decades, “eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in 72% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.”
Fallibility aside, the relative consistency of basic facts in the eyewitness accounts to Brown’s killing — combined with a history of racially biased, violent policing in many of St. Louis County’s African-American neighborhoods — fueled weeks of outrage. A refusal on the part of local authorities to release key pieces of information to the public made matters worse.
On August 12, three days after Brown was killed, Johnson, the friend who was with him at the time of his death, gave a detailed description of the shooting to the press. Similar accounts soon followed.
Johnson said that when Wilson rolled up in his patrol vehicle, he told the two to “get the fuck onto the sidewalk” and that they responded by saying that they were nearing their destination. According to Johnson, Wilson, who had apparently continued past them, slammed on his brakes and reversed in their direction, pulling up so close that when he attempted to open his driver’s side door it slammed into Brown and remained closed. Johnson claimed that there was a “tug of war” struggle between Brown and Wilson, with Wilson grabbing at Brown’s neck—“[Brown]did not reach for a weapon at all,” Johnson said. Johnson said Wilson told Brown “I’ll shoot” and that a shot went off while Wilson was in the vehicle. Johnson thought Brown might have been hit by the first shot, as blood was beginning to soak through Brown’s shirt on his right side.
According to Johnson, he and Brown took off running after the first shot. Wilson stepped out of his vehicle. Johnson ducked behind a car and Brown continued on. Johnson said Wilson’s second shot struck Brown in the back and that the teen then turned around with his hands up and said, “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!” Wilson fired several more shots, Johnson said, and Brown fell to the concrete curled into a fetal position. Johnson’s attorney later said his client recalled that Brown’s hands were not held high, that one was lower than the other because he seemed to be “favoring it.”
One day after Johnson’s first interview, Tiffany Mitchell, 27, came forwardto describe what she saw that afternoon on Canfield Drive. In multiple interviews, with local news outlets, MSNBC, and CNN, Mitchell said that she too witnessed a physical struggle between Brown and Wilson through Wilson’s window and that a shot went off while Wilson was still inside the vehicle. That shot, she said, was fired while Brown’s hands were on the outside of the vehicle, in what she believed was the teen’s effort to push himself away from the officer. Mitchell claimed that after the first shot Brown managed to break away and took off running. Wilson got out of his vehicle, she said, and fired more shots. Mitchell said that at one point Brown jerked, as if he may have been shot, and that’s when he turned around and faced Wilson.
“After the shot, the kid just breaks away. The cop follows him, kept shooting, the kid’s body jerked as if he was hit. After his body jerked he turns around, puts his hands up, and the cop continues to walk up on him and continues to shoot until he goes all the way down,” Mitchell told a local TV news outlet.
Mitchell was in the Canfield complex to pick up her coworker, Piaget Crenshaw, 19, who also witnessed the shooting. Crenshaw told the Post-Dispatch that Brown’s hands were in the air when he attempted to flee from Wilson. From her apartment, Crenshaw shot cell phone video depicting the moments immediately following the shooting. Crenshaw shared her videowith CNN. The video showed a dazed Wilson, wearing his blue Ferguson police uniform, pacing around Brown’s body. Crenshaw told CNN that she believed she saw Wilson attempting to pull Brown into his vehicle but failed and Brown got away. “It just seemed to have upset the officer,” Crenshaw said. She said Wilson then exited his vehicle and was “chasing after” Brown. She said multiple shots were fired and said she believed one might have grazed Brown.
“At the end [Brown] just turned around, after I’m guessing he felt the bullet graze his arm, he turned around then was shot multiple times,” Crenshaw said.
Darren Wilson was identified as the officer who killed Michael Brown on August 15, three days after Johnson came forward and nearly a full week after the shooting took place. The police had initially said he would be identified earlier, but changed course and decided to keep his name secret for several additional days, pointing to concerns for Wilson’s safety. That same day, the police also revealed the existence of surveillance camera footage that purported to show Brown and Johnson stealing a box of cigars from a local convenience store.
Since Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson acknowledged that Wilson’s initial decision to stop Brown and Johnson had nothing to do with the alleged strong-arm robbery, Brown’s parents and supporters argued that the release of the video–which the Department of Justice protested–was a blatant attempt at character assassination. Rep. William Lacy Clay of St. Louis said McCulloch’s office was attempting to influence the jury.
“Bob McCulloch tried to taint the jury pool by the stunt he pulled today,” the congressman told the Post-Dispatch. “I have no faith in him, but I do trust the FBI and the Justice Department.”
Two days later, on the evening of August 17, a private autopsy of Brown’s body was made public. The autopsy was performed by Michael M. Baden, the former chief medical examiner for the City of New York, at the request of the Brown family. The examination found that Brown was shot at least six times, including twice in the head and four times in the right arm. All but one of the shots appeared to have happened while Brown was facing Wilson, though one of the wounds to the teen’s arm could have occurred while Brown was facing away from Wilson, according to Shawn L. Parcells, who participated in the autopsy. With no gunpowder residue found on Brown’s body, the shots appeared to have been fired from a distance. Among the most significant wounds Baden examined was the bullet hole in the top of Brown’s head.
“This one here looks like his head was bent downward,” he told The New York Times. “It can be because he’s giving up, or because he’s charging forward at the officer.”
The day after the private autopsy results were revealed, a caller identifying herself as “Josie” phoned into The Dana Show, a conservative talk-radio program, and said she was a friend of Wilson’s. In a six-minute interview, Josie offered the officer’s version of the shooting, which largely foreshadowed the account Wilson ultimately gave to the grand jury.
“[Brown and Johnson] were walking in the middle of the street,” Josie began. “[Wilson] rolled his window down and said, ‘Come on guys. Get out of the street.’ They refused to and were yelling back, saying we’re almost where we’re going and there was some cussing involved.”
Josie said Wilson had pulled ahead of the young men when he received a call over the radio about a strong-arm robbery. According to Josie, Brown and Johnson fit the description broadcast over the radio. “He goes in reverse back to them, tries to get out of his car, they slam his door shut violently. I think he said Michael did,” Josie said.
“Then he opens his car again and tries to get out and as he stands up Michael just bum rushes him, and just shoves him back into his car, punches him in the face and then of course Darren grabs for his gun and Michael grabs the gun,” Josie added. “At one point he’s got the gun totally turned against his hip and then he shoves it away and the gun goes off.”
“Michael takes off with his friend,” she said. “They get to be about 35 feet away and Darren, of course protocol is to pursue. So he stands up and yells, ‘Freeze!’ Michael and his friend turn around and Michael starts taunting him. ‘Oh, what are you going to do about it? You’re not gonna shoot me.’”
“And then he said all of a sudden [Brown] just started to bum rush him,” Josie said. “He just started coming at him full speed so [Wilson] he just started shooting and he just kept coming. So [Wilson] really thinks [Brown] was on something because he just kept coming. It was unbelievable. And then so he finally ended up, the final shot was in the forehead and then he fell about 2, 3 feet in front of the officer.”
CNN quickly picked up on the interview and that afternoon reported that Josie’s account was consistent with the version of events Wilson provided to authorities, citing “direct guidance” the news outlet had received.
In late October, Brown’s official autopsy was leaked to the Post Dispatch. The 16-page report said that Brown had been shot nine times. Three of the shots entered Brown’s head — once in the top of the head, once in the right eye, and once in the “right central forehead” — two entered the chest, three entered the right arm, and one entered his right hand, “near his thumb and palm.”
“The official report notes an absence of stippling, powder burns around a wound that indicate a shot fired at relatively short range,” the paper reported.
According to the narrative report of the investigation prepared by the office of the medical examiner, Brown had become “belligerent” after Wilson ordered him out of the road. It said that he had pushed Wilson’s door shut, and that during a struggle Wilson’s weapon became un-holstered. “The weapon discharged during the struggle,” the report said. Brown ran, Wilson gave chase, and Brown turned around and ran towards him. Wilson fired “several times.”
“As this is preliminary information it was not known in which order or how many time [sic] the officer fired his weapon during the confrontation,” the report said.
“The deceased was cool to the touch,” the medicolegal investigator reported upon first encountering Brown’s body in the street. “Rigor mortis was slightly felt in his extremities.” The report added, “The deceased [sic] mother was on the scene.”
The emergence of the autopsy report deeply upset many supporters of the Brown family, with some suggesting that it was a thinly veiled attempt to publicly soften the blow of a non-indictment.
In the days and weeks that preceded the leaking of the autopsy report, more accounts of the shooting emerged. On the question of whether Brown charged “full speed” at Wilson — like some sort of drug-addled madman, as Josie claimed — witnesses repeatedly said that he did not. Some said he was at a stand still, some said he was walking calmly towards the officer, others said he was staggering, fatally wounded, in Wilson’s direction.
James McKnight told The New York Times that Brown’s hands were up as soon he turned around to face Wilson. “I saw him stumble toward the officer, but not rush at him,” McKnight said. “The officer was about six or seven feet away from him.”
Michael T. Brady, 32, told reporters that he began watching the altercation between Brown and Wilson shortly after it started. “It was something strange,” Brady said. “Something was not right. It was some kind of altercation. I can’t say whether he was punching the officer or whatever. But something was going on in that window, and it didn’t look right.”
Brady told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he did not hear the initial shot in the vehicle and that the “tussle” between Brown and Wilson lasted about ten seconds before Brown and his friend Johnson took off running. Brown, he said, was running down the middle of the street. Wilson stepped out of the car and “immediately” started shooting, Brady said, adding that Brown’s back was to the officer (because he was inside at the time, Brady said he could not hear anything Wilson may or may not have been yelling). Brady himself then ran outside with his phone.
“By the time I get outside he’s already turned around facing the officer,” Brady said of Brown. Brady said that Brown was “balled up” with his arms clutching his abdomen. Brown appeared to be going down, Brady said, “and the officer lets out about three or four shots at him.”
“He took like one or two steps going towards the officer,” Brady said. He flatly rejected claims that Brown was charging towards Wilson. “No,” Brady told CNN. “Not at all.”
In early September, the Post Dispatch revealed the existence of two more key witnesses in the Brown shooting; a pair of construction contractors who witnessed the killing from approximately 50 feet away. The men did not see how the altercation began, but looked up from their work when they heard a shot. One of the men detailed the ordeal in an interview with paper, saying that Brown had first approached them at approximately 11:00 a.m. and engaged his co-worker in a half-hour conversation in which Brown said he was “feeling some bad vibes.”
According to the contractor, Brown talked about having a picture of Jesus on his wall and said,“that the Lord Jesus Christ would help me through that as long as I didn’t get all angry at what I was doing.” A half-hour later, the contractor said, they heard the shot. The contractor said Brown was running and Wilson was following with his gun drawn about 10 to 15 feet behind the teen. He said the officer fired a shot while Brown’s back was turned.
The contractor said Brown stumbled and turned, then said, “OK, OK, OK, OK, OK.” Brown and Wilson were about 10 feet apart, he said. With his hands up, “[Brown]’s kind of walking back toward the cop,” he said. The contractor said Wilson was backing up while firing and that after the third shot Brown’s hands began to fall. The contractor told the paper that from his vantage point he could not tell whether the teen’s movement was “a stumble to the ground” or a “OK, I’m going to get you, you’re already shooting me.”
“I don’t know if he was going after him or if he was falling down to die,” the contractor said. “It wasn’t a bull rush.”
The Post–Dispatch report also quoted Canfield resident Phillip Walker, 40, who said Brown was walking towards Wilson with his hands up. “Not quickly,” he said. “He did not rush the officer.” As the paper noted at the time, “No witness has ever publicly claimed that Brown charged at Wilson.”
Four days after the Post–Dispatch story was published, CNN aired cellphone video of two contractors, presumably the same two who talked to the Post–Dispatch, reacting to the shooting. One of the men in the video, shown in a pink shirt, told CNN that he witnessed Brown “staggering.” The man said he heard one shot fired, then another 30 seconds later. He is seen in the video throwing his hands in the air, exclaiming, “He had his fucking hands up.” The contractor told CNN, “The cop didn’t say get on the ground. He just kept shooting.” He added that he saw Brown’s “brains come out of his head.” According to CNN, “[a]n attorney for the man who filmed the video says it was recorded 40 seconds after the shooting.” The second man in the video told the news network that he saw Brown running from a police vehicle, that he “put his hands up” and that “the officer was chasing him.”
In October, yet another witness spoke to the Post-Dispatch. The man, a Canfield resident who asked to remain anonymous but claimed to have watched the ordeal from start to finish, described testimony that he gave to the grand jury reviewing the Brown shooting. Unlike previous accounts, the man said that Wilson did not fire until Brown turned and faced him. Like Johnson’s lawyer said, the eyewitness said Brown did not raise his hands high. As the paper described it, “Brown never put his hands straight up, but held his elbows straight out from his torso, with palms turned up in a sort of gesture of disbelief.” The witness said that despite commands to stop, Brown staggered towards Wilson. He added that the final shot was fired with Brown and Wilson 20 to 25 feet apart, contradicting Josie’s claim that Wilson fired his last round with a charging Brown just feet away.
The witness also described an initial scuffle between Brown and Wilson through the window of the police vehicle, adding that he believed he saw Wilson’s hat fly off. He said he heard a shot and that Brown went running with Wilson following behind yelling “Stop!” (this contradicts the account of one of the two construction workers, who said Wilson was firing without issuing commands). According to the witness, Brown obeyed Wilson’s command to stop. The teen mumbled something the witness could not hear then took a step towards Wilson, the witness said.
“When he stepped foot on that street, the officer told him to stop again, and he fired three shots…When he (Brown) got hit, he staggered like, ‘Oh,’ and his body moved. Then he looked down…His hands were up like this (he gestures with arms out to the side and palms upward), and he was looking at the officer and was coming toward him trying to keep his feet and stand up. The officer took a few steps back and yelled, ‘Stop,’ again, and Michael was trying to stay on his feet…He was 20 to 25 feet from officer, and after he started staggering, he (Wilson) let off four more rounds. As he was firing those last rounds, Michael was on his way down. We were thinking, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, brother, stop, stop.’ He was already on his way down when he fired those last shots.”
Echoing the feelings of many Canfield residents, the witness told the paper, “What transpired to us, in my eyesight, was murder. Down outright murder.”
Photo: Tiffany Mitchell; Sid Hastings/AP; Tiffany Mitchell/KMOV-TV/AP; Jeff Roberson/AP
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Ferguson, Mo. was in a tense and frenzied holding pattern Friday, with some activists planning to move protests into St. Louis’ more affluent communities.
Darren Wilson will probably get let off. And, appalling as that is, it’s an outcome that won’t surprise any black person, including yours truly.