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The Ferguson Evidence

On the unreliability of eyewitnesses


Conor Friedersdorf — who, by the way, has been highly critical of police tactics in general — says that one reason Officer Wilson was not indicted was because of inconsistent, even contradictory, statements by witnesses. He quotes the statements from the grand jury documents, then concludes:

I haven’t yet had time to go through all the documents released by St. Louis County, but based on these witness statements, I can see why the grand jury would have reason to doubt whether Officer Wilson committed a crime. At least some witnesses corroborate his story. Some that don’t contradict one another. If the witnesses above all testified in a criminal trial, it’s hard to imagine that a jury would fail to have reasonable doubts about what really happened. There are hundreds of pages to sift through that the grand jury saw. In coming days, we’ll probably discover at least some eyewitness testimony contradicted by physical evidence. But it seems all but certain that we’ll never know exactly what happened that day.

One thing that is not in dispute among the witnesses, says Conor, is that Michael Brown leaned into the window of the police car, and that there was a struggle with the cop:

There’s no way to know for sure what Officer Wilson said to Michael Brown, or what the young man said back. But witnesses saw him leaning into the window of the police car. They saw some kind of struggle. They heard a gunshot fired and they saw Michael Brown start running away.

What’s really in dispute is what happened next.

The autopsy showed that Wilson fired a shot from inside his police car, striking Brown’s hand as it was inside the car. An independent pathologist in San Francisco analyzed the evidence and told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the physical evidence indicates that Brown was reaching for Wilson’s gun.

So it seems indisputable that a suspect reached into a police officer’s car as the officer had a pistol in his hand. If you were the cop, what would you have suspected the suspect was trying to do in that case?

If you don’t want to be shot by police, don’t stick your hand into the window of an officer’s car and try to grab his weapon. Can we at least concede that this was an extraordinarily stupid thing for Michael Brown to have done? That does not mean that what followed on the street was justified (nor does it follow that it was not justified). But it does mean that both the physical evidence and eyewitness statements support the contention that the initial shot that hit Michael Brown was justified.

Unless you believe that criminal suspects should be able to thrust their hands into the cars of police officers and try to grab their guns without being shot.

What would you have done had you been the cop in that situation?

As Conor indicates, the eyewitness statements are inconsistent, but the one most damning to Ofc. Wilson — from a friend of Brown’s — is very far from anything any of the other eyewitnesses saw.

Of course none of this means that black people aren’t treated badly by cops in general, or that cops in general are too quick to use lethal force. But neither of those beliefs make Wilson’s actions in this specific case criminal, or even worthy of indictment. Keep an eye on what the story is, based on the evidence, not what you think the story should be. That’s what the grand jury of nine whites and three blacks had to make its decision on. From The New York Times:

Independent legal experts said it was impossible to analyze the grand jury decision without studying the transcripts of the testimony as well as the police reports, autopsies and forensic evidence that might shed light on what Mr. Brown was doing in his final seconds: whether he was menacing the officer or, as a friend who was with him said, trying to surrender.

Some people claiming to be eyewitnesses said Mr. Brown was shot in the back, Mr. McCulloch [the county prosecutor — RD] said, but later changed their stories when autopsies found no injuries entering his back. But others, African-Americans who did not speak out publicly, he said, consistently said that the youth had menaced the officer.

Mr. McCulloch, had promised that he would allay any suspicions about the fairness of the proceedings by releasing, with names redacted, transcripts of testimony and other evidence heard by the panel.

The release of grand jury information, secret by law, is rare, and Mr. McCulloch originally said he would first seek a judge’s permission. But on Monday, his office said it had determined that it had a right to release most of the transcripts and it did so Monday night.

Let’s see what the grand jury saw before we decide whether or not their decision not to indict was justified. The story we want to believe — both people who support the cop and those who support Brown — is not necessarily the same thing as the most plausible story suggested by all the available evidence. Which you have not seen, and neither have I.

UPDATE: A reader who is a former police officer writes:

Anytime someone goes for an officer’s gun it is a lethal force situation. Being in a vehicle is a particularly difficult place to protect your gun. There is a element of police work where you contact people while in your car and to have one of them lunge in and try to disarm you is nothing but an ambush situation. You are at a tactical disadvantage and the person out of the car is in one of superiority. He could have driving off dragging the kid…and it would have been justified.

If lethal force is justified the means which it is implement do not matter — period. If you go for a cop’s gun you will be lucky if you just end up in the hospital and not the morgue.

Re: what happened after the officer exited the car, and the time frame which occurred: we trained our officers to be able to fire 6 shots in 1 second on target, so the amount of rounds does not bother me. Was [Michael Brown] still a lethal threat? That’s the question the Grand Jury is looking for.

Why would we go to trial when there is not enough evidence for an indictment? That is not how our system works — thank God!

Another reader sends in this passage from a NYT story:

Disorder broke out moments after Mr. McCulloch announced that Mr. Wilson would not face charges for the Aug. 9 shooting.

Mr. Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, and stepfather, Louis Head, stood with protesters outside the barricaded Ferguson police station as Mr. McCulloch made the decision public. As Ms. McSpadden cried, Mr. Head turned and yelled, with an expletive injected, “Burn this down!”

UPDATE.2: Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Washington office, on Ferguson. Excerpt:

We haven’t as of yet sorted through all the evidence the grand jury saw and we don’t know precisely what happened in this nightmarish incident. What we do know is that the Ferguson situation is one of several in just the past couple of years where white and black Americans have viewed a situation in starkly different terms. White Americans tend, in public polling, to view the presenting situations as though they exist in isolation, dealing only with the known facts of the case at hand, of whether there is evidence of murder. Black Americans, polls show, tend to view these crises through a wider lens, the question of whether African-American youth are too often profiled and killed in America. Whatever the particulars of this case, this divergence ought to show us that we have a ways to go toward racial reconciliation.

One of the things I’ve learned over the past year is that nothing brings out more hate mail, nothing, than when I say that too many black kids are being shot in America. Often this hate mail is accompanied by the sort of neo-Confederate rhetoric that I would have thought would have died out, at least in its explicit form, a long, long time ago. That’s just mail, with no real harm. I cannot imagine what it would be to worry about the physical safety of my sons. We have come a long way toward racial justice in this country, but we shouldn’t be deceived. The old zombie of Jim Crow still moves about.

This is true, and important. It is also true, and important, that Justice Department statistics show that 93 percent of black people murdered in America are murdered by other black people. True, 84 percent of white murder victims die at the hands of whites; murder is overwhelmingly an intraracial crime. That said, a Washington Post analysis that is generally hostile to Rudy Giuliani’s statements on race and crime this weekend reports:

It is true that the rate of black homicide victims and offenders were disproportionately represented compared to the general population, the 2011 BJS [Bureau of Justice Statistics] report found. The black victimization rate (27.8 per 100,000) was six times higher than the white victimization rate (4.5 per 100,000). Black offending rate (34.4 per 100,000) was almost eight times higher than whites (4.5 per 100,000), according to the report.

“The danger to a black child in America is not a white police officer. That’s going to happen less than 1 percent of the time. The danger to a black child … is another black,” Giuliani said. “If my child was shot by a police officer, I would be very, very frustrated. I’d also be frustrated if my son was shot by a gangster in the street. But if the chances were — that my son would be shot by the gangster in the street — nine times out of 10, I’d spend an awful lot of time on the nine times out of 10.”

Giuliani later told the Post that the “less than one percent” stat was his estimate. We don’t have statistics one way or the other. Still, it is impossible to refute Giuliani’s claim that mortal danger to young black men overwhelmingly comes from other young black men.

UPDATE.3: A reader writes:

I thought your story this morning was even-handed, but I wanted to point out that the pathologist you cited as an “indisputable” source establishing the fact that Brown went for the officer’s gun during the initial confrontation disputes that notion herself. The pathologist was independent of the investigation, and she was also misquoted on her reading of the situation. You can’t determine a subjective detail like whether he was trying to grab the gun based on the autopsy–just that he was in close range. She has detailed her contextualized take both online and in an interview with MSNBC: https://twitchy.com/2014/10/25/forensic-pathologist-charges-reporter-used-inaccurate-and-misleading-quotes-on-michael-brown-autopsy/

https://www.msnbc.com/the-last-word/watch/paper-obtains-official-michael-brown-autopsy-346549827897I think this is a significant detail to update/correct, considering it convinces you that Brown was acting foolish from the onset, which is not necessarily the case.