FERGUSON AND THE MEANING OF “JUSTICE”

1408390089660_Image_galleryImage_Officer_DARREN_WILSON_picstlouis13n-14-webThe Grand Jury in Missouri appears to have rendered its decision in the shooting investigation Michael Brown. It is expected to be announced shortly. Below is my column in USA Today.

In anticipation of the decision on whether to indict officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, the town of Ferguson, Mo., is a virtual armed camp. Schools are closed. The National Guard was called out when the governor declared a state of emergency. The emergency? A grand jury announcement.

While most protesters have engaged in legitimate and lawful speech, others used the shooting of the black teenager by a white police officer as justification to loot the town. State and federal forces are assembling in Ferguson in expectation that some protesters will riot unless there is a criminal charge. Those who insist that “justice” can be found only in jail for Wilson are speaking not of real justice but mob justice.

After the fatal encounter on Canfield Drive, there was good reason for many to question the shooting of Brown. The 18-year-old was unarmed, and police say he had committed a minor theft before being stopped by Wilson. Given the continuing cases of the profiling and shooting of black males by police, there was ample reason for suspicion. However, there was also ample reason for caution before declaring Wilson was a murderer.

Dueling stories

Within hours of the shooting, two clear and equally plausible narratives emerged. From the police account, Brown attacked Wilson after the officer confronted him for blocking the street. In the ensuing struggle in the patrol car, Brown was shot when he grabbed for the officer’s gun and then shot repeatedly outside of the vehicle. From the account of Brown’s friend (and others), Wilson gunned down Brown after the stop without provocation, including shooting him when he had his hands in the air. Each account has one of the men acting in an unprovoked and violent manner. If either account is true, it will be determined through investigations, not demonstrations.

Rioters, who somehow rationalized looting as acts of moral outrage, weren’t willing to wait for evidence. What is surprising is that national and local leaders showed the same impatience.

220px-Jay_Nixon_cropSoon after the shooting, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon referred to Brown as the “victim” despite Wilson’s insistence that Brown attacked him. Nixon denounced the police for releasing video that they say shows Brown robbing a store and threatening the clerk as besmirching the victim. Nixon also called for the pursuit of “a vigorous prosecution” for the shooting. A governor’s foremost responsibility is to demand not prosecution but the truth from an unbiased investigation.

Premature federal role

holderericAttorney General Eric Holder was also criticized for his reaction. Holder said he shared the same experience of profiling and abuse at the hands of police. As he did in the Trayvon Martin case, Holder sent in federal civil rights investigators before the initial investigation ended. Such federal investigations are ideally launched after state trials or, at a minimum, after an investigation is complete. When the federal government steps in, it can make the process look political and ultimately fuel discontent when it too rejects charges. Even before the grand jury has rendered its decision, The Washington Post reports that Holder’s investigators failed to uncover evidence to support civil rights charges.

That’s because the evidence in this case gives Wilson a strong defense. Brown allegedly was coming from the commission of a crime where he appeared to threaten a store clerk. The forensic evidence appears to contradict those who insist that Brown was not shot in a struggle but with his hands in the air. There is evidence that Wilson was injured in a struggle, the gun was discharged in the car and Brown was shot at close quarters leaving blood on the gun. Finally, more than a half-dozen black witnesses reportedly gave testimony supporting Wilson. Other scenarios could explain the evidence, and there is still the question of why so many shots were fired. But those questions might never be answered, a reality of some criminal cases.

The law requires us to deal with facts, and when those facts do not support a criminal charge, prosecution is barred regardless of popular demand.

In the end, it rings hollow to cry “no justice, no peace” when you are rioting or looting. There can be no justice if it is merely the result of demonstrations rather than demonstrated facts. Otherwise, the scales of justice become just one more object to throw through the window of an appliance store.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, has represented both protesters and police officers.

November 24, 2014

301 thoughts on “FERGUSON AND THE MEANING OF “JUSTICE””

  1. happypappies…you are right, I’ve less than a month or two in St Louis area. However…I do know cops, and how they react to things like Officer Wilson’s plight. Cops are not that different from there to here (Detroit) and we had 10 odd years (1975 to 1985 or so) of non-policing to avoid a similar fate. The politicians have nothing to do with it, beyond insisting police protect their, the politicians’, self-interest…otherwise, from the officers’ standpoint it is purely the very human instinct for survival….and will be held close within the police community and not shared with politicians. If they are as bad as you say (and I don’t doubt you one bit) they are, they should be very pleased with that. It is the ordinary citizens who will “pay” for this episode by getting less, not more, police protection for every day crimes. That is why I wished them “luck”…they will need it.

    Some things are the same where ever you find them. Even well known pathologists who knowingly ignore physical forensic evidence and suggest scenarios that are literally impossible…e.g., cartridges cases flying forward some 30 feet or so…does NOT happen. Ever. And that I can prove anytime someone wants to join me at one of the ranges I shoot at weekly. IN 50 years of shooting semi-automatic pistols I have never ever seen one ejected cartridge case fly forward. Not a single one.

  2. A final comment about the Ferguson hullabaloo …. now that Officer Wilson has resigned. The residents of Ferguson, heck all of St Louis County, should not be surprised in the future when their police officers sort of lag on responses and don’t take actions when otherwise called for by circumstances. I have witnessed this personally in my town in the late 70’s when officers just didn’t give a dang…several officers I knew then took a protect myself stance first and refused to get involved in much policing per se. I witnessed one sergeant I knew fairly well who had gone through a similar episode as Officer Wilson, but did not resign, tell an excited young man, who was reporting a car break in and theft within 100 yards of where we were standing…he told the citizen “welcome to Detroit” … and continued to smoke his cigarette.

    When assaulting a uniformed police officer is considered unworthy of response by said officer, especially if alone, then the overall demeanor of the police force will change out of self preservation instinct.

    Good luck Ferguson. You have just placed yourself back in to the 1970’s.

    1. Aridog – I would say that Ferguson had help from the Brown family (extended), Obama, Nixon, Sharpton and various members of the MSM. There are additional outside forces who have helped along the way to inflame the situation and the city. Having said that, they will be very lucky if they ever recover economically from their own suicide.

    2. Aridog – that comment was very unfair as you know nothing of the politics of Ferguson. I lived in and Around North County for 55 Years and moved to SE Missouri in 2009 for my Husband. This I can tell you, N St. Louis County Police Force was corrupt long before the 70s. It is run by a machine in Clayton Mo and also by Francis Slay in St Louis Mo that keeps getting voted in by dead Democrats. What happened to Officer Wilson was very unfair and the Obamanation must be very happy with the Weatherman Holder Criminal – Even the Justice Department expressed frustration with his recent actions, with a senior aide to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. calling Mr. Nixonโ€™s office to criticize his decision to deploy the National Guard as more likely to rouse than to calm. – See more at: http://newsbusters.org/blogs/clay-waters/2014/11/25/nyt-finds-excuses-ferguson-violence-treats-gov-jay-nixon-republican#sthash.XvL9tNVx.dpuf Don’t mind me I am very upset over this and take it personal ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Paul…let me repeat, shell casing ejected from a semi-auto pistol do NOT fly forward, but to the side, and travel 10 feet or less at that. My FNX-45 even bounces them off the forehead of shooters less than 6 feet tall …e.g., they travel to the rear as well as to the side.

  4. Paul…agreed, however the physical evidence is not bizarre…it just is what it is and is a necessary part of any analysis. Examples of perceptions upon hearing testimony is the difference between you and Old
    George…he heard from 35 feet, but you heard within 35 feet. The facts of the physical evidence is neither.

    1. Aridog – the choices are outside 35 feet, exactly 35 feet or inside 35 feet. Take your pick. I think the shell casings show inside 35 feet. However, if it is 35 feet or outside, Wilson is one damn fine shot.

  5. Clarification: The target linked is not under the pressure of a Tueller drill, but tried later I got only the two shots inside the bullseye ring, versus 20 when firing without the pressure of the drill.

  6. Paul C Schulte….Listen to the video clip again, the last 20 seconds…Baden clearly says he was shooting from 35 feet away at the least…either he clearly mis-spoke, or he too was caught up in the confusion about how far away Wilson was from Brown…the evidence clearly shows him to be with int eh 10 to 12 feet Wilson claims. I don’t think Old George was trying to be difficult, because he related what he heard on that video. It is just an example of how when relating only portions of the evidence mistakes can be made in the confusion of lack of full context…e.g., all the evidence. It also shows how snippets of remarks can be misleading and be repeated. I don’t think Old George was misleading, nor that Dr Baden intended to do so. However, what he said does not match the physical evidence….Wilson would have to bend over and pick up all 10 casings and move them forward 20 odd feet….a very unlikely scenario under the stressful circumstance extant.

    As I have related recently here or on another thread, the Tueller Drill distance for a man Wilson’s age is 21 feet, while mine, at my age has expanded to 30 feet in the last drill I performed. Even then I was hard pressed to place all shots in the bullseye ring…when being pushed by the timing requirements…although I can place 20 shots , timed fire (approx 2 seconds or less per shot) in the bullseye ring of 6 inches from that 30+ foot distance firing from a weaver stance and not under the pressure of timing and decreasing distance. That target linked is the first I fired with a new S&W Shield compact pistol I’d bought the same day….where I got only two shots inside the ring and none near the 10-ring….and I’ve been shooting for some 65 years, and pistols for 45 or so of those years. It’s not like I’ve never shot a combat action course and seen the results multiple times.

    Misunderstandings are just that…interpretations by knowledgeable people taken in bits and pieces from the total evidence.

    1. Aridog – In following the testimony, the witnesses are so conflicted that nothing makes sense. Witnesses were not there, witnesses made things up, witnesses are just mistaken. The testimony is just bizarre.

  7. Old George…Dr Baden’s comment about the 35 feet ignores the evidence of the ejected shells centered around Brown’s body. Everybody is occasionally fallible It is impossible for that casing distribution to happen from 35 feet away based upon my own repeated personal experience. See this chart released by the St Louis County Prosecutor’s Office

  8. It was wonderful to see the voter registration drives in Ferguson with the emphasis on getting the residents of Ferguson involved in their own governance. If one doesn’t engage in improving their own lives, their lives will stagnate. Going forward is a positive direction. To burn the place down did nothing but destroy it. But perhaps some feel that things must be destroyed in order to be rebuilt. However, I think sometimes people and cities can never come back from complete destruction.

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