Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.
Officer Darren Wilson was spared criminal charges in part because of significant contradictions in the testimony of bystanders who saw the Ferguson, Missouri, teen get shot and killed.
A grand jury in St. Louis County, Missouri, has ruled that there is no probable cause to believe Officer Darren Wilson committed a crime when he killed Michael Brown. Put another way, in their estimation, the state doesn't possess enough facts to cause a reasonable person to conclude that criminal charges are true. This judgment was shaped in part by the testimony of eye-witnesses to the shooting. Prosecutor Robert McCulloch has now released transcripts of many witness interviews.
The main takeaway: Eyewitness testimony is highly unreliable. To read through the accounts is to see seemingly honest people contradict one another on basic, significant matters of fact. It is seemingly impossible to know what really happened.
But that doesn't mean nothing is clear.
Officer Wilson's account is a useful place to begin, especially since this is the first we've heard of it after all these months. Here's a condensed version that excises irrelevant details:
I heard on the radio that there was a stealing in progress from the Ferguson Market on West Florissant. I heard a brief description of a black male with a black t-shirt. As I was driving out down Canfield westbound I observed two black males walking in the center of the roadway on the center yellow line ... I remember seeing two cars I believe go around them and they hadn't moved ... I told 'em, "Hey guys, why don't you walk on the sidewalk." The first one said, "we're almost to our destination" and pointed this direction. I said, "okay, but what's wrong with the sidewalk?" And that was as they were passing my window. The second subject said, "Fuck what you have to say." After that I put the vehicle in reverse, backed up about ten feet to 'em, and attempted to open my door. Prior to backing up I did a call out on the radio ...
I say, "Hey, come here." He said, "What the fuck are you gonna do?" And he shut my door on me. The door was only open maybe a foot. I didn't have a chance to get my leg out. He came up and approached the door. I opened the door again trying to push him back. He said something. I'm not exactly sure what it was and then started swinging and punching at me from outside the vehicle ...
He has his body against the door preventing me from opening it. His stomach was against the door. His hands were inside on me... he had to duck his head to come inside my vehicle and he entered my vehicle with his hands, his arms, his head ... assaulting me ... The first time he struck me somewhere in this area, but it was a glancing blow 'cause I was able to defend a little bit. After that I was just scrambling to get his arms out of my face and grabbing me and everything else. He turned to his left and handed the first subject ...a pack of several cigarillos which was just stolen from the Market Store. And when he did that I grabbed his right arm trying just to control something. As I was holding it he came around with his arm extended, fist made, and went like that straight at my face with a full swing with his left hand ...
It was closed. It was in a fist.
After that, it kinda jarred me back and I yelled at him numerous times to stop and get back. I believe somewhere in there I put my hand up trying to just get him away from me. I was already trapped and didn't know what he was gonna do to me but I knew it wasn't gonna be good ... I mentally started thinking what should I do next? I started off with my mace ... couldn't reach it with my right hand. I was using this hand to block and all that. My left hand was blocking.
I couldn't reach around my body to grab it and I know how mace affects me so if I used that in such close proximity I was gonna be disabled, per se. And I didn't know if it was even gonna work on him, if I would be able to get a clear shot or anything else. Then I was picturing my belt. I don't carry a taser so that option was gone and even if I had one with a cartridge on there, it probably wouldn't have hit him anywhere. I have a flashlight I carry in my bag. My duty bag was on the passenger seat. I wasn't willing to give up more of my vehicle and my body to him to lean over and grab it and turn away from him.
I thought I was already compromised enough.
I drew my firearm, I pointed at him... "stop I'm going to shoot you" is what I ordered him to get on the ground. He said, "You're too much of a fuckin' pussy to shoot me" and grabbed my gun. When he grabbed my gun, he twisted it, pointed at me and into my hip, pelvic area. I know his hand was on my trigger finger, which was inside the trigger guard. And when he grabbed it he pushed it down and angled it to where it was like this is my hip. My firearm was in his control and pointed directly into my hip. At that point I was guaranteed he was going to shoot me. That's what I thought his goal was.
He had already manipulated [so that] I was not in control of the gun. I was able to tilt myself a little bit and push it down and away towards the side of my hip ... He had me completely overpowered while I was sitting in the car. Then I took my left arm and I pinned it against my back seat and pushed the gun forward ... it ended up being right about where the door handle is on the Tahoe ...
When it got there it was somewhat lined up with his silhouette and I pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. Pulled it again, nothing happened. I believe his fingers were over in between from the hammer and the slide preventing it from firing. I tried again. It fired. Glass shot up. The first thing I remember seeing is glass flying and blood all over my right hand on the back side of my hand. He looked like he was shocked initially, but he paused for a second and then came back into my vehicle and attempted to hit me multiple times.
He took a half step back and then he realized he was okay, I'm assuming. He came back towards my vehicle and ducked in again, his whole top half of his body came in and tried to hit me again. Fist, grab, I mean just crazy. Just random, anything he could get a hold of swinging wildly. And at that point I put my hand up like this and tried to fire again and my left hand was blocking my face. Just a click. Nothing happened. After the click I racked it and as I racked it just came up and shot again. When I turned and looked I realized I had missed ...
He was running east ...
This is a useful place to break because the story up to this point is not inconsistent with what eyewitnesses saw. There's no way to know for sure what Officer Wilson said to Michael Brown, or what the young man said back. But witnesses saw him leaning into the window of the police car. They saw some kind of struggle. They heard a gunshot fired and they saw Michael Brown start running away.
What's really in dispute is what happened next.
Let's continue with Officer Wilson's version. He tries to radio that shots have been fired. He gets out of his police vehicle and turns in the direction Brown had run:
I was yelling at him to stop and get on the ground. He kept running and then eventually he stopped in this area somewhere. When he stopped, he turned, looked at me, made like a grunting noise and had the most intensive face I've ever seen on a person. When he looked at me, he then did, like, the hop ... you know like people do to start running. And he started running at me. During his first stride, he took his right hand and put it into his shirt under his waistband. And I ordered him to stop and get on the ground again. He didn't. I fired multiple shots. After I fired the multiple shots I paused for a second, yelled at him to get on the ground again, he was still in the same state. Still charging, hands still in his waistband, hadn't slowed down. I fired another set of shots. Same thing, still running at me, hadn't slowed down, hands still in his waist band. He gets about eight to ten feet away, he's still coming at me in the same way. I fired more shots. One of those, however, many of them hit him on the head and he went down right there. When he went down his right hand was still under his body, looked like it was in his waistband.
I never touched him.
How does this account compare to what other witnesses said?
Here's one eyewitness account (all of these are condensed):
It looked like he attempted to run, but he ain't get anything but like ten, twelve steps before he stopped and turned around. That's when I heard all the gunshots. And the officer was standing there with his gun pointed at him ... it wasn't really a run because he didn't get far. Well, after he stopped, he turned around, and he put his hands about shoulder length. It wasn't in the air... you know when somebody's scared, like they're backing away from something like "whoa." [I say he was scared because] he was a big dude, and he was kinda hunched forward like he was in, with his hands up, like he was in a give up, you know, "I'm givin' up" stage ... I couldn't see facial expressions ... [Officer Wilson] wasn't firing any shots as he was running away.
Here is an account from a second witness:
... he stopped and when he stopped, he didn't get on the ground or anything. He turned around and he did some type of movement. I never seen him put his hands up or anything. I can't recall the movement that he did. I'm not sure if he pulled his pants up or whatever he did, but I seen some type of movement and he started charging toward the police officer. The police officer returned fire, well, not returned fire, opened fire on Mr. Brown. If I had to guess the shots and the distance between him and Mr. Brown, it would have to be five to ten yards and the shots that were fired was four, five to six shots fired. Mr. Brown was still sanding up. My thoughts was ... is he hitting him? Because Mr. Brown, there was no reaction from him to show that he was hit.
After that Mr. Brown paused.
He stopped running and when he stopped running the police officer stopped firing. And then Mr. Brown continued, started again to charge towards him and after that the police officer ... I'm seeing him coming at an aggressive speed and just in charge mode toward the police officer ... I feel like the police officer he didn't have time to really react and holster his weapon and then reholster with a taser ...
Here's the longer version:
The boy backed up and ran ... and he got to a certain spot that was 25 to 30 feet, maybe more. And when he turned to face the officer he raised his hands but he didn't raise them all the way up. He raised them up and looked down like he was looking at his side ... and then he turned and faced the officer like, what happen? Why ya know? I don't know what was going through his mind, but if I had a guy shot I would have came like, why did you shoot me or whatever?
The officer exited the vehicle ... and he said "stop." Because the boy looked up at him and he took two steps, about two or three steps. Pow pow! He fired off about three rounds and he hit him. The boy kinda wiggled. And when he came back up he had the weirdest look on his face, and he started coming forward. Not like he was trying to attack him, it's like he was coming to him, like to plea with him, stop. The officer did say, 'stop, stop, stop.' Well after that third time, he let loose. And the boy was coming forward slowly. Real slowly.
But you could see he was hurt, 'cause he was like this. And rocking back and forth. He wasn't in an upright position, he was kinda hunched over. And as he was coming forward and he fired off the volley, he was falling ... He was walking forward but it was not in a menacing way ... he did not have to fire that last volley. That's what killed him, to me. Because he didn't look like he was ready. You know. To me and I'm going to say it, he was executed. He had made up his mind he was going to kill him.
Yet another witness saw a more ambiguous scene: "All I could see was he was coming fast... I can't say either way but you know if I was the officer I would look nervous too."
This witness has Michael Brown kneeling in the street.
Did he have his hands up?
Another witness says no: "Now I've heard lots of people talking about how he had his hands up. He did not have his hands up. His hands were down at his sides. And he got to within maybe six or ten feet from the officer and ... the cop shot him."
And here's the witness statement most damning to Wilson, from one of Brown's friends (though it's so directly contradictory to all of the others that it seems less credible):
I seen them shoot Michael Brown in the head as soon as the police officer exited his truck ... I seen my best friend in the middle of the street with his hands in the air and he said, "please don't shoot me." The officer got out of his car and shot him ... I seen him exit his car, shoot him in his head and then he shot him eight more times. It was four gunshots, and then there was a ten second pause, and then four more ... point blank range, like close ... like a step away ...
I would never lie. I wouldn't lie on my best friend
After watching his best friend get shot, perhaps going into shock, and chatting with all the people around him as they spread facts and falsehoods, I don't think he necessarily lied. The confounding thing about eyewitness testimony is that all of these people may be earnestly describing exactly what they think that they witnessed.
How exactly would any of us remember if we saw a horrific scene unfold over mere seconds, whether from 50 yards away or peering suddenly out a window or driving by?
I haven't yet had time to go through all the documents released by St. Louis County, but based on these witness statements, I can see why the grand jury would have reason to doubt whether Officer Wilson committed a crime. At least some witnesses corroborate his story. Some that don't contradict one another. If the witnesses above all testified in a criminal trial, it's hard to imagine that a jury would fail to have reasonable doubts about what really happened. There are hundreds of pages to sift through that the grand jury saw. In coming days, we'll probably discover at least some eyewitness testimony contradicted by physical evidence. But it seems all but certain that we'll never know exactly what happened that day.
This story originally appeared on The Atlantic.