Matt Apuzzo and Erik Eckholm, New York Times, March 5, 2015
Offering the most definitive account yet of the shooting of an unarmed black teenager that stirred racially charged protests across the country, the Justice Department has cleared a Ferguson, Mo., police officer of civil rights violations in the death last August of Michael Brown.
The decision, announced on Wednesday, ends a lengthy investigation into the shooting last August, in which the officer, Darren Wilson shot and killed Mr. Brown in the street as he tried to stop him for a possible theft. Several witnesses said Mr. Brown, 18, had his hands up in surrender when he died, leading to violent clashes in Ferguson and nationwide protest chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
But federal agents and civil rights prosecutors rejected that story, just as a state grand jury did in November when it decided not to indict Mr. Wilson. In an 86-page report released Wednesday that details the testimony of more than 40 witnesses–and evaluates their credibility and consistency with forensic evidence–the Justice Department largely backed up Mr. Wilson’s account and said there was no basis for criminal charges.
Mr. Wilson, who left the Ferguson Police Department late last year, said that Mr. Brown had fought with him, reached for his gun, and later charged at him, making him fear for his life.
“There is no evidence upon which prosecutors can rely to disprove Wilson’s stated subjective belief that he feared for his safety,” the report said. At the same time, it concluded that the witnesses who claimed that Mr. Brown was surrendering were not credible.
In a written statement, Mr. Brown’s parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., said they were saddened and disappointed with the news that “the killer of our son wouldn’t be held accountable for his actions.”
But the couple also praised a second Justice Department report released on Wednesday that found systemic discrimination against African Americans by the Ferguson Police Department and municipal court.
“We are encouraged that the DOJ will hold the Ferguson Police Department accountable for the pattern of racial bias and profiling they found in their handling of interactions with people of color,” the statement said.
The Justice Department’s report includes a description of every witness’s accounts, which were sometimes offered in multiple interviews with St. Louis county police and the FBI, and judged their likely credibility in court.
No witnesses had accounts that were both credible and pointed toward Mr. Wilson’s guilt, the investigators wrote. Nine witnesses did not fully contradict or corroborate the officer, while the accountes of 24 others were dissected and shown, the federal investigators said, to lack credibility. These included witnesses who admitted they had not actually seen the events.
“Our investigation has been both fair and rigorous from the start” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a news conference on Wednesday afternoon. It was conducted independently from the investigation by the local police, he said, and included the canvassing of more than 300 residences to locate additional witnesses.
“The facts do not support the filing of criminal charges against Officer Darren Wilson in this case,” he said. For those who feel otherwise, he said, “I urge you to read this report in full.”
Some of the witnesses whose accounts supported Mr. Wilson said they had been afraid to come forth before or tell the truth because they feared reprisals from the enraged community.
From the beginning, civil rights charges represented a difficult hurdle for prosecutors to clear. The law requires prosecutors to prove that Mr. Wilson willfully violated Mr. Brown’s civil rights when he shot him. Courts have given officers wide latitude when deciding when to use deadly force if they feel their lives are in danger.