Ferguson Grand Jury Witnesses Often Cited Fear in Testifying

Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times, November 26, 2014

This witness was scared. He had Googled himself and found the phrase: “Snitches get stitches.”

He was scared that black neighbors would find fault with his description of what happened when a white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot dead an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo.

He was scared that white supremacists would accuse him of hurting Wilson’s case. “I do think of the Ku Klux Klan. I do,” he told investigators.

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The jurors’ decision not to indict Wilson prompted prosecutors to make public more than 4,700 pages of transcripts and reports in hope of quashing suspicions that Wilson got away with murder. The tactic did not work, and rioting erupted in Ferguson this week.

But the documents do provide a look at what some witnesses went through as they wrestled with the fallout of witnessing a controversial killing.

Some feared saying something that would upset neighbors if it did not match other witness accounts.

“You never know how people react to certain things,” testified one man, who did not speak to police until 13 days after Brown’s death but whose version of events bolstered the view that Brown had his hands up and was not posing a threat when Wilson shot him.

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“You are anonymous,” the St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, told the jurors when they met for the first time on Aug. 20. He told them not to wear their juror badges as they entered the justice building in Clayton, Mo., lest news reporters or others spot them. He noted that a construction project next door would help block visibility to comings and goings around the justice building.

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On Oct. 23, more than two months into the jury’s proceedings, prosecutors told them that some witnesses did not want to talk.

“The light is at the end of the tunnel so to speak,” Kathi Alizadeh, one of the attorneys presenting evidence, told jurors as she expressed hope their work would be done by mid-November. But she said there were about 15 eyewitnesses or other people with potentially valuable information still to question, and some were resisting.

“Some of them have frankly said there is no way I’m coming in, no way I’m going to testify,” Alizadeh told the jury. In those cases, she said the only option was to serve them with subpoenas. “But if you knock on the door and nobody answers, we have no right, you know, to kick in the door,” she said.

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That weighed on the mind of a man who said he had watched much of the action unfold from his balcony, and who later grew to fear both the Klan and some of his own neighbors. “I’m shaking and I’m nervous right now and I’m scared, you know,” said the witness, who testified that Brown “might have been punching” Wilson through his car window, but that Wilson shot Brown in the back. (Neither autopsy report presented to the jurors, however, indicated Brown was shot in the back.)

A man who was at the apartment complex and had a different version also expressed unease at speaking to investigators. That witness, who described Brown as charging toward Wilson, said he felt uncomfortable walking into the Ferguson police station “past all the protesting going on,” but felt it was his duty to tell what he had seen.

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