Ferguson grand jury focused on fatal ‘tussle’
FERGUSON, Mo. — Some witnesses called it a tussle. Others described it as a tug-of-war. Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson testified that they were fighting over his handgun.
None of the witnesses who testified, other than Wilson, could say exactly what was happening inside his police car, but by almost all accounts, Michael Brown was physically struggling with the officer through his open window moments before he was shot to death on Aug. 9.
Wilson blamed it on Brown, saying the 18-year-old reached through his driver’s side window, hit him in the face, called him a (wimp) and grabbed his gun. Wilson told the grand jury that he pulled the trigger twice in his own defense, but no shots went off.
“At this point I’m like, why isn’t this working? This guy is going to kill me if he gets ahold of this gun. I pulled it a third time, it goes off.”
Wilson’s description of his state of mind during that initial confrontation may help explain why jurors decided not to indict. One of the legal standards for justifiable use of deadly force in Missouri is whether an officer reasonably believed his life was in danger.
Thousands of pages of testimony reviewed by The Associated Press show the encounter between the white police officer and the young black man started off badly, and very quickly spiraled out of control.
Wilson begins by noting his own size – nearly 6-foot-4, weighing around 210 pounds. Then he proceeds to explain why, in his view, the episode with Brown (6-4, 289 pounds), whom he compares to a demon and Hulk Hogan, became violent.
Wilson had just wrapped up a call about a sick child. Brown had just stolen a pack of cigarillos from a convenience store. Wilson spotted Brown and a friend walking down the center of a residential street, and told them to move aside. They refused, and Brown responded with an expletive.
That was the moment when Wilson said he realized Brown matched the description of the robbery suspect and decided to confront the young men singlehandedly, backing up his vehicle to block Brown’s path.
What happened next was witnessed by people in at least two passing vehicles and residents watching from the porches and balconies of nearby apartment buildings. They told their accounts either directly to grand jurors or to FBI interviewers, whose recordings were played for the jury. Wilson and Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, recounted their versions of the struggle, sometimes with conflicting details.
Many of the eyewitnesses from the nearby buildings were older, had never been interviewed by the media in the months since the shooting and accused younger residents of circulating false stories about Brown having been shot while lying defenseless on the ground.
Wilson said he tried to open his vehicle door, Brown pushed it shut, and then he pushed Brown with the door before Brown reached in and hit him in the face.
Johnson saw it differently: He said Wilson had pulled his vehicle so close to them that when the officer tried to open the door, it hit Brown hard and bounced back. Then, Wilson’s “arm came out the window, and that’s the first initial contact that they had. The officer grabbed, he grabbed ahold of Big Mike’s shirt around the neck,” Johnson said.
Other witnesses then noticed the commotion.
“I don’t know if he had grabbed him or what, but you could see them tussling in the car, they were moving around,” said a witness watching from a porch whose taped interview was played for grand jurors. Though Brown was on the outside of the vehicle, his hands appeared to be inside it, the witness aid.
It was “just like some kind of tug of war or something was going on,” the witness said.
Public attention to this killing has frequently focused on the fact that Brown was unarmed. But whether Brown had a weapon makes little difference under Missouri law. State law says officers can act with deadly force when they believe it is necessary to arrest a person who has committed a felony or who may “endanger life or inflict serious physical injury.”
The jurors asked about this deadly force standard Friday shortly before they began deliberating. One asked whether a person’s hands could be considered a weapon, and was told yes. Another asked whether Brown himself could be seen “as being a weapon” because of his “size and demeanor.”
Prosecutor Kathi Alizadeh then interjected: “Those things that you are asking is, could a person reasonably believe that their life was threatened? That’s the crux of what you all have to talk about.”