The St. Louis County grand jury that declined to indict a white police officer in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, heard wildly contrasting testimony, including witness accounts that the hulking Brown was charging at Officer Darren Wilson when he was shot, and Wilson's own claim that Brown taunted him as he grabbed for his gun, saying, "you are too much of a p---- to shoot me."
The grand jury decision came late Monday in Missouri after more than 70 hours of testimony from roughly 60 witnesses, spanning 25 days over three months, and touched off fresh looting and rioting on the streets of Ferguson and St. Louis. As the 12 members of the grand jury heard evidence in closed proceedings, claims from purported witnesses and civil rights activists told the tale of a youth gunned down mercilessly as he held his hands up in surrender. But the grand jurors, including six white men, three white women, two black women and one black man, were told a different story.
Brown “has his arms out with attitude,” while “The cop just stood there,” one witness to the shooting that capped the noon-time confrontation testified. “Dang if that kid didn’t start running right at the cop like a football player. Head down.”
The fatal shots came after a 90-second encounter that, Wilson told the grand jury, began when he saw Brown and a friend, Dorian Johnson, walking in the street on Aug. 9. The police officer said he told them to move to the sidewalk, which drew an expletive from Brown. Wilson noticed that Brown had a handful of cigars, “and that’s when it clicked for [him]” that the men were suspects in a theft at a convenience store reported just minutes earlier.
Wilson, 28, said he called for backup before maneuvering his vehicle in front of Brown and his friend. Wilson, who is much smaller than the 6-foot, 4-inch, 290-pound Brown was, told the panel of being attacked and in fear for his life as Brown slammed his squad car door on him and pummeled him through the window moments after Wilson confronted him walking in the middle of the street.
Wilson testified that, “I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” The cop added, “Hulk Hogan, that’s just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.”
“What do I do not to get beaten inside my car?” Wilson asked grand jurors.
The officer said he drew his handgun and threatened to shoot Brown if he didn’t retreat, fearing another punch to the face could “knock [him] out” or incapacitate him.
“He immediately grabs my gun and says, ‘You are too much of a [p----] to shoot me',” said Wilson, adding that he thought he would be shot when Brown dug the gun into the officer’s hip.
Wilson said he managed to pull the trigger and the gun “clicked” twice without firing before a shot blasted through the window. Brown, according to Wilson, then stepped back and glared at the officer with the “most intense, aggressive” face.
“The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked,” Wilson told the grand jury. “He comes back toward me again with his hands up.”
Wilson shielded his face and fired again, telling the grand jury he fired two shots in the car before the unarmed teen fled and Wilson followed. When Brown stopped, Wilson told him to get on the ground. Wilson said he fired a series of shots when Brown kept approaching him with his right hand under his shirt in the waistband of his pants.
Wilson then fired another round of shots as Brown approached Wilson as if he was going to tackle the officer.
“Just coming straight at me like he was going to run right through me,” Wilson said. “And when he gets about … 8 to 10 feet away … all I see is his head and that’s what I shot.”
Johnson's version of events differed in key respects. He told the grand jury he expected to be arrested while they were walking home after Brown stole cigarillos from a liquor store. Wilson, Johnson said, initially drove past the men after originally telling them to get onto the sidewalk, reversing his patrol car and returning to the pair after they ignored his demand.
“After he pulled back, there was no more sidewalk talk, it was nothing, it was just anger,” Johnson told the grand jury.
Wilson opened his door suddenly, Johnson said, striking Brown before closing the door and grabbing Brown by the neck. The two men engaged in a “tug of war,” Johnson said, with each holding onto the other’s shirt and arms.
Johnson said he heard Wilson say, “I’ll shoot!” as the men grappled. Johnson said he never saw Brown punch Wilson and didn’t think he grabbed the officer’s gun.
“At the time I couldn’t open my mouth,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t speak. I wanted to say could someone calm down … I’m still standing there, more shocked than ever because I see it is escalating. I can see and hear the cuss words, I can see the frowns on their faces getting more intense.”
Johnson said he and Brown fled after the initial shots were fired. Brown stopped and turned to face the officer, however, after Wilson shot again.
“At that time Big Mike’s hands was up, but not so much in the air, because he had been struck … he said, 'I don’t have a gun,' but he’s still mad, he still has his angry face,” Johnson said. “I don’t have a gun … and before he can say the second sentence or before he can even get it out, that’s when the several more shots came.”
Johnson insisted Brown did not run at the officer prior to the fatal shots.
“Some witnesses maintained their original statement that Mr. Brown had his hands in the air and was not moving toward the officer when he was shot,” St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch said. “Several witnesses said Mr. Brown did not raise his hands at all or that he raised them briefly and then dropped them and then turned toward Officer Wilson, who then fired several rounds.”
One witness whose name was not listed in the grand jury transcripts testified he was working in a nearby building and saw Brown leaning through the police vehicle window and “some sort of confrontation” took place. A shot rang out, he said, and Brown fled as the officer chased him with his gun drawn. Brown stopped, according to the witness, but never raised his hands. Brown “ran towards the officer full charge,” he said, when Wilson fired several shots.
Another witness testified she and her husband saw the shooting from a nearby apartment complex. After the first two shots were fired, she said Brown began running from Wilson’s vehicle but stopped, turned around and started heading toward Wilson, who shot at him.
“No, he wasn’t,” the witness said when asked if it appeared Brown was approaching Wilson in a threatening fashion. “I think he was stunned, honestly.”
“He just kept walking toward the officer,” she told the grand jury. “He didn’t stop.”
The Justice Department will continue to investigate the shooting for evidence of a potential civil rights violation, although the federal investigators face a higher burden of proof to establish whether Wilson willfully deprived Brown of his civil rights. In recent high-profile shootings, that standard has been tough to satisfy, including a case in which federal prosecutors this year declined to charge officers who fatally shot an unarmed woman with a baby in her back seat after a car chase from the White House to the U.S. Capitol.
“For a cop to be indicted and especially to be convicted later of a crime in these kinds of situations, is very, very unusual,” said Chuck Drago, a police practices consultant and former police chief in Oviedo, Fla.
In a 1989 decision, the Supreme Court shaped the national standard regarding the use of force by officers when they reasonably fear imminent physical harm. The use of force must be evaluated through the “perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene” rather than being judged after the fact, meaning officers are often given the benefit of the doubt by prosecutors and grand jurors are reluctant to second-guess their decisions.
Many of the cases that do not result in charges involve armed suspects shot during violent confrontations with police. But even an officer who repeatedly shot an unarmed person — as was the case in Ferguson — may avoid prosecution if he or she contends they felt an imminent risk.
“A police officer is not like a normal citizen who discharges their weapon,” said Lori Lightfoot, a Chicago attorney who previously probed police shootings. “There is a presumption that somebody who is a peace officer, and is thereby authorized to use lethal force, used it correctly.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.