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St. Louis County Prosecutor Bell Will Not Charge Darren Wilson

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell announced Thursday that he will not charge Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown in 2014. 07/30/20
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell announced Thursday that he will not charge Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown in 2014.

A former Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown nearly six years ago will not face charges.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell announced his decision Thursday, following a five-month review of the case.

“Although this case represents one of the most significant moments in St. Louis’ history, the question for this office was a simple one — could we prove beyond a reasonable doubt that when Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, he committed murder or manslaughter under Missouri law,” Bell said. “After an independent, in-depth review of the evidence, we cannot prove that he did.”

A grand jury in 2014 declined to charge Darren Wilson. A review by the U.S. Department of Justice also found that there was not enough evidence to take the case to trial and that Wilson did not violate Brown’s rights. But Bell said his decision does not exonerate Wilson.

“The question of whether we can prove a case at trial is different than clearing him of any and all wrongdoing,” Bell said. "There’s so many points at which Darren Wilson could have handled the situation differently, and if he had, Michael Brown might still be alive.”

Bell reopened the case at the request of Brown’s parents, Michael Brown Sr. and Lezley McSpadden.

“I know this is not the result they were looking for, and that their pain will continue forever,” Bell said. “This is a time for us to reflect on Michael’s life, to support Michael’s family and honor a transformative movement that will forever be linked to his name.”

He said he had spoken to the family before his announcement, but he declined to discuss what they said. Bell added he did not speak with Wilson.

“Quite frankly, there's no good time for this,” Bell said. “I've made a point to meet with every single family victim with respect to homicides in any serious crimes. And it's never going to be a pleasant conversation, even if you are able to file charges. Because we can't bring their loved one back.”

Also on Thursday, Bell announced a series of reforms his office had made, saying it is what the community and the family are owed. The changes include:

  • Using an independent unit to investigate police use of force and potential wrongful convictions. That same unit last week filed attempted murder charges against two Velda City police officers.
  • Providing support to families of those killed or injured by police. “There will be times, like this one, where we cannot ethically prosecute a case given the state of the law or the facts, but that does not mean we cannot provide support for each family,” Bell said.
  • Recording the presentation of evidence to grand juries in all homicide cases, though the deliberations will remain secret. “Due process shouldn’t just be for police officers and the politically connected; it should be for all citizens,” Bell said. Such proceedings have been halted for months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Activists disappointed

Bell’s decision did not go over well with activists who helped Bell oust longtime incumbent Bob McCulloch in 2018. McCulloch was the prosecutor who presented evidence to the grand jury in 2014.

“My heart is so heavy today knowing that the family of Mike Brown has to listen to another prosecutor tell them the man who killed their child won’t be indicted,” Kayla Reed of Action St. Louis wrote on Twitter. “I don’t have faith that the criminal legal system will ever give our families justice.”

The Color of Change, which was heavily involved in the 2018 election, called Bell’s decision a “disappointing blow.”

“Today’s announcement by Attorney Bell to not pursue charges reinforces the importance of making the systemic changes necessary to end over-policing and the structural racism built to protect police officers from accountability. We stand in solidarity with the people of St. Louis in demanding the changes that will bring us closer to achieving real justice for our communities,” said Scott Roberts, the group’s senior director of criminal justice campaigns.

After the press conference was over, Tory Russell, a key activist in the protests decrying Brown’s death, stood up and told Bell: “It’s over. It’s your last term, bro.”

“We knocked those doors for you,” said Russell, alluding to how a number of activists involved in Ferguson protests campaigned for Bell in his 2018 race against McCulloch, adding, “This is your first and last term.”

Darryl Gray, the political adviser for the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition, said he too was disappointed in the decision. But he added that he still supports Bell, adding that he “did what we expected him to do, which is “to reinvestigate this case.”

“I am not pleased with the findings, but I understand the high bar,” said Gray, who is a candidate for the state House. “It's our job as a community to lobby and to advocate for legislation that would not allow police to be above the law.”

Bell said when “we start basing our decisions based on public backlash, we’re in it for the wrong reasons.”

“This is about the family,” Bell said. “Once we concluded, we shared that information with the family. And that was at their request. But what I hope is that people who are watching this understand we put the time in. We did a thorough and detailed investigation. And we sat down with the family, looked them in the eyes, and gave them the findings.

“And I think at this point, that’s all we can do.”

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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.