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Justice Department clears Wilson; account of Brown's death contradicts some common beliefs

Michael Brown's Normandy High School graduation photo
Provided by UPI

(Updated at 7:30 p.m. with comments from St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch)

The U.S. Justice Department’s report into the fatal of shooting of Michael Brownby then-police officer Darren Wilson makes two basic findings: investigators were not convinced that Wilson committed a federal crime; and that even if they were to indict Wilson, they didn’t believe they would be able to win at trial.

The report, issued today, offers a detailed account of what happened on Aug. 9, 2014, when Wilson encountered Brown on Canfield Drive in Ferguson. It differs in significant respects from some previously widely circulated accounts. In particular, the report finds that despite popular belief, Brown did not have his hands up in a position of surrender when he was fatally shot.

In addition to interviews with Wilson, investigators interviewed more than 100 “purported eyewitnesses and other individuals claiming to have relevant information.” They also collected cell phone data, searched social media sites and tracked down many other leads.

Investigators compared all of that information with the physical evidence collected at the scene and forensic evidence, including autopsy reports.

“The evidence, when viewed as a whole, does not support the conclusion that Wilson’s uses of deadly force were ‘objectively unreasonable’ under the Supreme Court’s definition,” the report states.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon that he does not feel vindicated by the Justice Department’s decision.

“To feel vindicated by something you need to feel incriminated by something. And I never did. I knew what we were doing and we were doing it properly. If anything this certainly confirms that,” McCulloch said.

He also said that he knew all along the Justice Department wouldn’t charge Wilson with violating Brown's civil rights.

“They were looking at the same evidence. They were looking at different statutes but the same evidence,” McCulloch said.

Wilson resigned from the Ferguson Police Department in November 2014. 

Following are some of the key points from the report:

The encounter between Wilson and Brown

While Wilson was on routine patrol on Canfield Drive, he “saw Brown and his friend … walking eastbound in the middle of the street.” The encounter between Wilson and Brown took place over approximately two minutes, at about noon.

Police dispatch recordings and Wilson’s radio transmissions show Wilson was aware of a recent theft from the nearby Ferguson Market, and that Wilson had a description of the suspects as he encountered Brown and Brown’s companion.

Wilson told investigators he suspected Brown and his companion were involved in the incident at the market, based on the descriptions he had heard, and that Brown was holding cigarillos, which had been described as being taken from the market.

After calling for backup, Wilson parked his SUV across both traffic lanes to stop Brown and his companion from walking any further. Wilson attempted to open the driver’s door to get out of his vehicle, but as he swung it open, the door hit Brown and either rebounded closed or Brown pushed it closed.

Wilson and other witnesses said Brown reached through the open driver’s window of the SUV and punched and grabbed Wilson. “This is corroborated by bruising on Wilson’s jaw and scratches on his neck, the presence of Brown’s DNA on Wilson’s collar, shirt, and pants, and Wilson’s DNA on Brown’s palm. While there are other individuals who stated that Wilson reached out of the SUV and grabbed Brown by the neck, prosecutors could not credit their accounts because they were inconsistent with physical and forensic evidence …”

Autopsy and other evidence

Autopsy results and bullet trajectory, skin from Brown’s palm on the outside of the SUV door as well as Brown’s DNA on the inside of the driver’s door corroborate Wilson’s account that during the struggle, Brown used his right hand to grab and attempt to control Wilson’s gun.

Darren Wilson
Credit Undated video grab
Darren Wilson

Wilson shot Brown at close range, striking him in his right hand, at the base of his right thumb.

After the initial shooting, the evidence establishes that Brown ran east on Canfield Drive and Wilson chased after him.

The autopsy results confirm that Wilson did not shoot Brown in the back as he was running away because there were no entrance wounds on Brown’s back.

The autopsy results alone do not indicate the direction Brown was facing when he received two wounds to his right arm. “However … there are no witness accounts that could be relied upon in a prosecution to prove that Wilson shot at Brown as he was running away. Witnesses who say so cannot be relied upon in a prosecution because they have given accounts that are inconsistent with the physical and forensic evidence or are significantly inconsistent with their own prior statements made throughout the investigation.”

Brown ran at least 180 feet away from the SUV, as verified by the location of bloodstains on the roadway. Brown then turned around and came back toward Wilson, who fired several more shots before Brown fell.

Several witnesses said Brown appeared to pose a physical threat to Wilson as he moved toward Wilson. According to these witnesses, who are corroborated by blood evidence in the roadway, as Brown continued to move toward Wilson, Wilson fired at Brown in what appeared to be self-defense and stopped firing once Brown fell to the ground.

Ballistics analysis indicates that Wilson fired a total of 12 shots, two from the SUV and 10 on the road.


Although several individuals have said Brown held his hands up in a sign of surrender before Wilson shot him dead, their accounts do not support a prosecution of Wilson. "Some of those accounts are inaccurate because they are inconsistent with the physical and forensic evidence; some of those accounts are materially inconsistent with that witness’s own prior statements with no explanation, credible for otherwise, as to why those accounts changed over time."

At the Michael Brown memorial in mid-August
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
At the Michael Brown memorial in mid-August.

Other witnesses who originally said Brown had his hands up in surrender recanted their original accounts, admitting that they did not witness the shooting or parts of it, despite what they initially reported either to federal or local law enforcement or to the media.

While credible witnesses gave varying accounts of exactly what Brown was doing with his hands as he moved toward Wilson — “i.e., balling them, holding them out, or pulling up his pants up — and varying accounts of how he was moving — i.e., 'charging,' moving in 'slow motion,' or 'running' — they all establish that Brown was moving toward Wilson when Wilson shot him.”

Although some witnesses state that Brown held his hands up at shoulder level with his palms facing outward for a brief moment, these same witnesses describe Brown then dropping his hands and “charging” at Wilson.

“… the evidence does not establish that the shots fired by Wilson were objectively unreasonable under federal law. The physical evidence establishes that Wilson shot Brown once in the hand, at close range, while Wilson sat in his police SUV, struggling with Brown for control of Wilson’s gun.

“Wilson then shot Brown several more times from a distance of at least two feet after Brown ran away from Wilson and then turned and faced him.

“There are no witness accounts that federal prosecutors, and likewise a jury, would credit to support the conclusion that Wilson fired at Brown from behind.”

Complete report: Department of Justice report on the shooting of Michael Brown

Outreach specialist Linda Lockhart has been telling stories for most of her life. A graduate of the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, she has worked at several newspapers around the Midwest, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as a reporter, copy editor, make-up editor, night city editor, wire editor, Metro Section editor and editorial writer. She served the St. Louis Beacon as analyst for the Public Insight Network, a product of Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media that helps connect journalists with news sources. She continues using the PIN to help inform the news content of St. Louis Public Radio. She is a St. Louis native and lives in Kirkwood.