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Michael Brown’s mother seeks justice at international human rights hearing

A Black man wears a green mortarboard and red stole.
Michael Brown Jr.'s Normandy High School graduation photo, taken months before he was killed by a Ferguson police officer in 2014.

Nearly 10 years after a Ferguson police officer shot and killed Michael Brown Jr., Brown’s mother, attorneys and activists have taken their mission to seek justice to an international forum.

Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, joined attorneys from the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights nonprofit and the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University during a virtual hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington, D.C. It marked the first time the commission held a hearing about an individual case of police violence in the U.S.

In 2014, then-Ferguson officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown, an unarmed Black 18-year-old. A grand jury that year declined to charge Wilson, and a review by the U.S. Department of Justice found that there was not enough evidence to take the case to trial.

Four years ago, St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell conducted another review of the case at the request of Brown's parents. But Bell decided not to file charges against Wilson.

McSpadden told the commission that the Department of Justice report on Brown's shooting lacked adequate insight into Wilson’s background.

“They used that DOJ report like a Bible,” said McSpadden, 44. “And it has a lot of holes in it, just as Mike's body did.”

Photos showing that Brown’s body was left lying on hot asphalt for over four hours, uncovered, went viral on social media. This sparked local and national protests that served as a catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement — one of the largest social justice movements in the U.S.

Delia Addo-Yobo, a staff attorney at RFK Human Rights, said Brown’s case is emblematic of widespread police violence against Black people in the U.S.

“More people were killed by police last year than any other year on record,” she said. “By taking on Michael’s case, the commission is facilitating new pathways to justice for those impacted by discriminatory and pervasive police violence.”

During Wednesday’s hearing, McSpadden said she was heartbroken when prosecutors chose not to pursue charges against Wilson. She recalled speaking with prosecutors and sharing all the good things about her son’s life.

McSpadden said Brown was robbed of his future.

“He never had a job, he never learned how to drive,” McSpadden said. “He was just beginning his life.

“I was crushed. I was hurt. And I was frustrated. Because I just really couldn't understand how [they] came to this conclusion. I lost hope in the justice system.”

She recalled how, after her son’s death, the streets were filled with people, many of whom were parents who said they experienced similar injustices under the helm of former St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who was prosecutor at the time. Brown’s death kindled tensions between police and African American communities around the region, especially in St. Louis and north St. Louis County.

Repair is needed, said Kerry Kennedy, president of RFK Human Rights.

“Never once did officer Wilson reach for his Mace, his flashlight, his baton or any other nonlethal instrument,” Kennedy said Wednesday. “Instead, he drew his gun, shot Mike, chased him down and emptied nearly all his bullets into the body of the unarmed teenager."

Kennedy said none of the Ferguson police officers tried to aid Brown after he was shot. She pointed to other cases of police-involved shootings across the country.

“Is it enough when in the years following Mike Brown’s assassination, police killed Rekia Boyd, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Manuel Paez Terán, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd? The answer is no. Is it enough when Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police in this country? The answer is no.”

Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Justice Department, attended Wednesday’s hearing and defended the department's decision not to seek charges.

“Federal authorities reviewed physical ballistic evidence, forensic and crime scene evidence, medical reports and autopsy reports, officer Wilson’s personnel records, audio and video recordings, internet postings and the transcripts from the proceedings before the St. Louis County grand jury,” Clarke said.

Federal prosecutors and agents also interviewed dozens of witnesses, and FBI agents canvassed more than 300 homes to find and interview additional witnesses, Clarke added. She said ultimately the evidence didn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Wilson violated the statutes needed to charge him.

“I understand that this 2015 conclusion gravely disappointed Mr. Brown's parents and family and many in the community,” Clarke said. “I ask that the commission and any interested parties read the full report, which shows the thoroughness of the department’s criminal investigation into Mr. Brown’s death.”

Still, a civil investigation of the Ferguson Police Department found the department engaged in an unlawful practice of conduct that violated the First, Fourth and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution, Clarke said. Following that report, a consent decree was entered by the courts that brought about vast changes to Ferguson’s municipal code and policing practices.

The decree is still being enforced, she said.

The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights nonprofit and the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center first petitioned the commission to review Brown’s case in 2015.

Two years later, the Brown family reached a $1.5 million settlement in a lawsuit against the City of Ferguson.

Things came full circle in 2022 as the commission determined that the Browns' petition raised “colorable claims that the United States’ failure to hold the officers accountable violated rights guaranteed under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.”

“The last decade has proven that our domestic legal structures are insufficient and outdated compared to international human rights standards,” said Wade McMullen, senior vice president of programs and legal strategy at RFK Human Rights. “After exhausting every U.S. mechanism for justice, the Brown family is now looking to the IACHR for accountability in the death of their loved one.”

The commission plans to publish a report on its findings and make recommendations to the federal government.

RFK Human Rights and Howard University, which are representing the Brown family, have asked the commission to recommend an independent investigation into Brown’s death and a public apology to his family. They also want the commission to support legislation like the proposed Breathe Act, which calls for divesting resources from incarceration and policing and allocating money to building healthier communities.

And they’re seeking support for the recently reintroduced Helping Families Heal Act, which would expand mental health services for communities harmed by police violence.

Lacretia Wimbley is a general assignment reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.