Criminal Justice

Missouri's 'officer-friendly' use-of-force law likely helped Ferguson officer avoid charges

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A Missouri law on police use of force likely benefited Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

Grand jurors in St. Louis County declined to indict Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown in a decision announced on Monday evening, spurring violence in Ferguson and protests across the nation, according to stories by the New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Several police cars and some businesses in Ferguson were set on fire, looting was reported, windows were broken, and bottles and rocks were thrown at officers. At least 61 people were arrested, St. Louis County police said.

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch announced the grand jury’s decision, saying the most credible eyewitnesses said 18-year-old Brown charged toward Wilson when the officer fired the last, fatal shots, the New York Times reports in a separate story. Other eyewitness accounts were inconsistent with the physical evidence and sometimes changed when the witnesses were confronted with the evidence, including autopsies that showed Brown was not shot in the back, he said.

According to the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, legal experts say the Missouri law governing police officers’ use of force is “more officer-friendly than that in other states.”

The law allows a police officer to use deadly force “when he reasonably believes that such use of deadly force is immediately necessary to effect the arrest and also reasonably believes that the person to be arrested a) Has committed or attempted to commit a felony; or (b) Is attempting to escape by use of a deadly weapon; or (c) May otherwise endanger life or inflict serious physical injury unless arrested without delay.”

McCulloch released transcripts of testimony, with witnesses’ names redacted, totaling 24 volumes of material, including testimony by Wilson, CNN says. Grand jurors evidently accepted testimony by Wilson, the New York Times reports in this story.

Wilson testified that he saw Brown carrying cigarillos and realized he and his friend may have been responsible for a recent theft from a cigar store. His goal, Wilson said, was to arrest Brown, according to the Times, CNN and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. An annonated transcript by the Times is here.

“My main goal was to keep eyes on him and just to keep him contained until I had people coming there,” he testified. “I knew I had already called for backup and I knew they were already in the area for the stealing that was originally reported. So I thought if I can buy 30 seconds of time, that was my original goal when I tried to get him to come to the car. If I could buy 30 seconds of time, someone else will be here, we can make the arrest, nothing happens, we are all good. And it didn’t happen that way.”

Wilson said he drove his police car back to Brown, and Brown twice punched him in the face. He said he tried to get out of the car but Brown twice slammed the door shut. “I felt that another of those punches in my face could knock me out or worse,” Wilson said. “ I’ve already taken two to the face and I didn’t think I would, the third one could be fatal if he hit me right.”

During the struggle, Wilson said he grabbed Brown’s arm. “And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” he testified. He also said Brown tried to get his gun. “The gun goes down into my hip and at that point I thought I was getting shot,” Wilson testified. “I can feel his fingers try to get inside the trigger guard with my finger and I distinctly remember envisioning a bullet going into my leg.” Wilson finally managed to pull his gun and fired twice.

When Brown started to run, Wilson chased Brown. “He still posed a threat, not only to me, to anybody else that confronted him,” Wilson said.

Wilson says he began firing his gun when Brown stopped, turned and came toward him. “As he is coming towards me, I tell, keep telling him to get on the ground, he doesn’t. I shoot a series of shots. I don’t know how many I shot, I just know I shot it,” he testified.

“I know I missed a couple, I don’t know how many, but I know I hit him at least once because I saw his body kind of jerk,” he said.

Wilson said Brown kept charging him, however. “At this point I start backpedaling and again, I tell him get on the ground, get on the ground, he doesn’t. I shoot another round of shots,” he said.

Wilson said Brown had one hand under his shirt when he was charging, and the other hand at his side.

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