No charges against Ferguson officer who killed Michael Brown

Decision most likely marks end of the legal saga in case that started global rise of Black Lives Matter movement

A memorial on the spot where Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson. Photograph: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

A memorial on the spot where Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson. Photograph: Todd Heisler/The New York Times


Six years after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a Black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, another investigation into the killing has come to the same conclusion as the first: The officer should not be charged. The officer, Darren Wilson, already had been cleared by a grand jury and a federal investigation months after the shooting in 2014. But Thursday’s announcement by a new prosecutor, Wesley Bell, most likely marks the end of the legal saga in a case that started the global rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has led to some major shifts in American policing and forced a renewed conversation about racism.

“Can we prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime occurred?” Mr Bell, the top prosecutor in St Louis County, said at a news conference. “The answer to that is no.” The killing of Brown led to intense protests in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, where scenes of smashed windows, burning buildings and upset protesters choking in tear gas were seared into the minds of Americans. There were similar demonstrations in several cities this year after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, although many of the nationwide rallies featured no vandalism or violence.

Mr Brown was 18-years-old and a recent high school graduate when he got into a confrontation with Mr Wilson on a quiet residential road. A struggle at Mr Wilson’s police vehicle turned into a street pursuit that ended with Mr Wilson fatally shooting Mr Brown. Witnesses said Mr Brown had his hands up when he was shot – sparking outrage and a protest rallying cry – but federal and local investigators said the evidence suggested otherwise.

‘Significant moment’

“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?” Mr Bell said. “After an independent and in-depth review of the evidence, we cannot prove that he did.”

Mr Bell said that although his office could not prove that a crime was committed, the investigation did not exonerate Wilson, who resigned months after the shooting. “There are so many points at which Darren Wilson could have handled the situation differently, and if he had, Michael Brown might still be alive,” he said.

Jim Towey, a lawyer for Mr Wilson, said he and Mr Wilson had not known that Mr Bell was formally reviewing the case, although they had assumed it was possible because the prosecutor pledged to do so while campaigning for the job. “Everybody that’s looked at the case has come to the same conclusion,” Mr Towey said. “There was not a crime and there should be no prosecution.” Even without a criminal prosecution, Mr Brown’s death brought attention to police killings of Black people. It also forced many police departments to consider reforms, like making officers wear body cameras, and other changes in the criminal justice system, like ending cash bail. An investigation by the Justice Department found that law enforcement in Ferguson regularly violated the rights of Black people, leading to changes in laws, and how courts and cities operate.

Product of change

Mr Bell himself is a product of the change brought on by Mr Brown’s death. Activists heavily criticised the longtime prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, who led the grand jury process that resulted in no indictment. Mr Bell, who is Black, unseated McCulloch in the Democratic primary two years ago as part of a nationwide wave of reform-minded people of colour winning prosecutor races. Ferguson elected its first Black mayor, Ella Jones, this year.

But as Mr Bell left the lectern Thursday, a man yelled at him, saying he would be voted out and criticising his decision not to charge Mr Wilson. Mr Brown’s name – among those of other Black people killed by the police – was frequently shouted by protesters or written on cardboard signs during weeks of recent protests that rapidly extended across the country after Mr Floyd was killed. Those Black Lives Matter protests, which are continuing in places like Portland, Oregon, may make up the largest protest movement in US history; polls have indicated that between 15 million and 26 million people have taken part in the demonstrations. Four officers have been charged in Mr Floyd’s death, including one, Derek Chauvin, who was charged with murder after a video showed his knee lodged against Mr Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. – New York Times