By Kristine Craig
Unless you were living under a rock this past summer, you no doubt remember the events that occurred on Monday, August 9. The manner in which the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen-year-old African American male, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, exploded in an arguably unprecedented media frenzy, distinguished this event from the hundreds of fatal shootings that happen across the country every year. According to a recent USA Today article, there are on average 96 incidents of a white police officer killing a black person out of an estimated 400 police killings each year reported to the FBI by local police.
Given that the situation in Ferguson was clearly not unique, contrasting the dense racial demographics of the city with respect to surrounding cities in St. Louis County paints a clearer picture of why the situation gained national media attention. When the shooting occurred and surfaced in the media, preexisting racial conditions furthered the distinction between those in power (primarily whites) vs. those subject to power under the law in a heavily African American community.
After spending just under 90 hours examining evidence and hearing 60 individual testimonies, the 12-member St. Louis County grand jury–which consisted of one black man, two black women, six white men and three white women—found Darren Wilson free of criminal charges. In his announcement of the decision on October 24, prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch acknowledged, “there is no question…that Darren Wilson caused the death of Michael Brown.” In light of this statement, the outcome of the case was clearly a product of: legal precedence and limitations, how well distinct parts of the law “mapped onto” the specific case in Ferguson, and most importantly an assessment of motives to determine whether probable cause existed.
A critical explanatory legal factor in the outcome of the case can be traced to the difference between federal and state laws. As William Freivogel noted in a Nov. 24 article for St. Louis Public Radio, “there is an outdated Missouri law that allows police to shoot an unarmed fleeing felon that could help Officer Darren Wilson avoid an indictment and prison.'”
Furthermore, in the 1988 court case Graham vs. Conner, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “all claims that law enforcement officials have used excessive force — deadly or not — in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other “seizure” of a free citizen, should be properly analyzed under the Fourth Amendment’s “objective reasonableness” standard, rather than under a substantive due process standard.”
In short, Brown’s attorneys needed to prove that Brown did not show a level of threat significant to warrant a “reasonable belief” in Wilson that Brown would kill him. If the jury could not confidently come to this conclusion, it would be justified in deciding not to indict Wilson in this case.
What happened in the court room?
The grand jury in the Ferguson case heard sharply conflicting pieces of eyewitness testimony regarding Brown’s level of threat toward Wilson.
After officials made court documents available late Monday night, a CNN news team established a few key take-away aspects of Wilson’s testimony. In the courtroom, Wilson expressed that he had never used his weapon on duty before the shooting, and described the hostility of the surrounding area.
“There’s a lot of gangs that reside or associate with that area. There’s a lot of violence in that area, there’s a lot of gun activity, drug activity, and it is just not a very well-liked community. That community doesn’t like the police.”
Wilson also claimed that he carried mace instead of a stun gun, due in part to the bulky size of the weapon. One of the most compelling parts of Wilson’s testimony was his description of the physical violence Brown inflicted upon Wilson.
“I felt that another of those punches in my face could knock me out or worse … I’ve already taken two to the face and I didn’t think I would, the third one could be fatal if he hit me right,” Wilson said. “Just coming straight at me like he was going to run right through me. And when he gets about that 8 to 10 feet away, I look down, I remember looking at my sites and firing, all I see is his head and that’s what I shot.”
FiveThirtyEight’s chief economics writer Ben Casselman suggests a lack of sufficient evidence as a leading reason Wilson was let off the hook: “Ordinarily, prosecutors only bring a case if they think they can get an indictment. But in high-profile cases such as police shootings, they may feel public pressure to bring charges even if they think they have a weak case.”
According to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch, “some witnesses maintained their original statement that Mr. Brown had his hands in the air and was not moving toward the officer when he was shot.” McCulloch also explains that “several witnesses said Mr. Brown did not raise his hands at all, or that he raised them briefly and then dropped them and then turned toward Officer Wilson, who then fired several rounds.”
Despite these legal explanations, why are we so shocked about the grand jury’s decision?
In truth, it could be because the media played a huge part in shaping public opinion surrounding the Ferguson shooting. The emphasis placed on the racial aspect of the Ferguson shooting from the start, prompted largely in part because of the preexisting racially segregated community demographics of Ferguson, led to an explosive skew in the language use and coverage that focused on how race played a role in Wilson’s rash decision to shoot Michael Brown. Even newspapers from various countries in the international community focused large amounts of attention and dialogue on the racial component of the event.
In contrast, when we focus in on the grand jury’s decision, we see a new-found separation of emotion and facts, paired with an exhaustive review of conflicting evidence linked to a different outcome than expected.
When examining the Ferguson case, it remains important to take note of evidence that has emerged in recent years regarding racial disparities in federal prosecutions. A 2014 study by the Vera Institute of Justice found that black and Latino defendants are more likely on average to be detained, to receive a custodial plea offer, and to be incarcerated when compared to “similarly situated white defendants.” However, while the findings suggest that race is a factor in court cases, and does influence a jury’s decision at various degrees, the study also makes clear that race is not the sole factor in determining the outcome.
It is unfortunate that despite this information, the media failed to cover this tragedy correctly. Had the media covered the shooting with more of an even distribution across angles and perspectives, (whether this is gun control, police power & capabilities under the law, crime & punishment, maintenance of social order, morality etc.), we would be less surprised at the outcome of this decision.
Given the large amount of data on demographics, there can be no debate that tense race relations and a racially monolithic community in Ferguson truly exists. However, it is the manner in which the media created such a one-point-of-view narrative about the shooting that has led to a mass amount of the public disbelief and outrage currently erupting across the nation. To be clear, I am not ruling out the existence of racial profiling or clear-cut racism in the town of Ferguson and in many cities across America—it certainly does continue to exist. However, I do believe that it was not the only component of the Ferguson debate that should have been highlighted.
Following the announcement of the grand jury decision on Monday night, an incredible amount of violence spread in the streets of Ferguson and around the country out of emotion conjured from the racial nature of the shooting. At 1:21 a.m. on Tuesday, November 25, a St. Louis County police officer was shot in the arm. In Ferguson, two police cars were set on fire, with reports of looting and gunfire in the streets. Riots in the streets of Oakland led to 40 arrests of people who were hurling bottles, breaking windows and setting small fires.
Not only do these actions run counter to the message from Michael Brown’s parents, who urged the nation and the community to act “in ways that will make a positive change,” but they also clearly undermine any legitimacy and momentum that Brown’s family and supporters had towards creating change in a nation that is not yet rid of racism. Between the violent protests that occurred after the decision was made, and the media’s unyielding use of framing techniques, this case will surely have considerable implications for future dialogue concerning race and how the media decides to convey similar situations in the future.