A St. Louis County grand jury has decided not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson on any criminal charges in the Aug. 9 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
The nationally televised announcement is the climax to a story that has captivated the nation and amplified racial tensions, with fierce clashes between protesters and police in a majority black town with a largely white police force. The incident and its aftermath resurfaced America’s long complicated history with race, violence, and law enforcement.
St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch began the announcement with a detailed explanation of the investigation, at times criticizing the media’s “insatiable appetite” in following the case and “non-stop rumors on social media.”
“The duty of the grand jury is to separate fact from fiction,” he said. “They are the only people who have heard and examined every witness and every piece of evidence.”
The Brown family issued a statement, saying they were “profoundly disappointed” with the decision, while calling for peaceful protests.
“We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions,” the family said. “While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.”
About an hour later, President Barack Obama made a statement, urging for calm, even as nationally television broadcasts aired split screens of the already tense protests with protesters attempting to overturn a police car, reports of gunfire and gas being deployed.
“I join Michael’s parents in asking anyone who protests this decision to do so peacefully. Let me repeat Michael’s father’s words. Hurting others or destroying property is not the answer,” Obama said. “No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want to lead to incredible change, positive change.”
The generally agreed facts are that Wilson shot Brown during a confrontation on Aug. 9 after the officer stopped Brown and a friend as they were walking down the middle of the street. Ferguson police later revealed that Brown was the suspect in a convenience store robbery that occurred shortly before the shooting. McCulloch said Monday that Wilson had heard about the robbery and received a description of the suspect.
Brown’s family alleged that Wilson shot the 18-year-old while he was trying to surrender. Law enforcement said that Brown and Wilson had struggled for Wilson’s weapon before the fatal shots were fired. McCulloch said Monday that witnesses said there had been a struggle for the weapon, though their description of what followed differed.
The shootings sparked weeks of intense protests, which stirred additional controversy for images of militarized police standing off with civilian protesters. There was a significant racial component to the protests — Brown was black, Wilson is white; Ferguson’s city government and police department is largely white, though the population is two-thirds African-American. The clashes led to the Missouri National Guard being called in and mass arrests, including the detainment of journalists who were covering the protests.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) declared a state of emergency last week in anticipation of a grand jury decision being reached and violence potentially breaking out. He also activated the Missouri National Guard after federal law enforcement said that violence was likely following the news. President Barack Obama himself warned against violence in response to the jury’s decision.
“This is a country that allows everybody to express their views. Allows them to peacefully assemble, to protest actions that they think are unjust,” he said Sunday on ABC’s This Week. “But using any event as an excuse for violence is contrary to rule of law and contrary to who we are.”
The grand jury, which met for nearly three months and heard testimony from dozens of witness, including Wilson himself, was plagued by accusations from the Brown family of bias by the prosecutor and from the Justice Department of strategic leaks by local authorities. There were also reports, however, that a significant number of African-American witnesses supported Wilson’s version of events, but had not been featured in media coverage. Wilson has been in hiding since the shooting, even missing scheduled court testimony for unrelated cases.
Prosecutor Bob McCulloch promised open and transparent grand jury proceedings, while pledging to release all evidence reviewed by the grand jury if Wilson was not indicted.
“We will be presenting absolutely everything to this grand jury — every statement that any witness made, every witness, every photograph, every piece of physical evidence,” McCulloch said in September. “Absolutely nothing will be left out.”
As TPM reported in August, it is rare for police officers to be indicted for shootings in the line of duty, stemming from a combination of legal and cultural norms that places a high burden of proof for charges. The Brown family’s attorneys have stated their skepticism about the process for months prior to Monday’s news.
“The whole process concerns us, the entire process,” Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the family, told TPM in September. “I think there’s a reason why the people mistrust the local law enforcement so much in the Ferguson community. They think this secret proceeding is going to be whatever the prosecutor wants it be, and nobody is going to know except the prosecutors and those jurors.”
An investigation by the U.S. Justice Department is ongoing, but it’s not clear whether it will pursue federal civil rights charges.