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.
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.
Soon 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
Attorney 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