Grand jury may hear varying accounts of Ferguson shooting

08/19/2014 10:40 PM

08/20/2014 2:07 AM

As a county grand jury prepared to hear evidence on Wednesday in the shooting death of a black teenager by a white police officer that touched off 10 days of unrest here, witnesses have given investigators sharply conflicting accounts of the killing.

Some of the accounts seem to agree on how the fatal altercation initially unfolded: with a struggle between the officer, Darren Wilson, and the teenager, Michael Brown. Wilson was inside his patrol car at the time, while Brown, who was unarmed, was leaning in through an open window.

Many witnesses also agreed on what happened next: Wilson’s firearm went off inside the car, Brown ran away, the officer got out of his car and began firing toward Brown, and then Brown stopped, turned around and faced the officer.

But on the crucial moments that followed, the accounts differ sharply, officials say. Some witnesses say Brown, 18, moved toward Wilson, possibly in a threatening manner, when the officer shot him dead. But others say Brown was not moving and may even have had his hands up when he was killed.

The accounts of what witnesses have told law enforcement officials come from some of those witnesses themselves, law enforcement authorities and others in Ferguson. Many of them spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be identified discussing an ongoing investigation.

The new details on the witness accounts emerged as Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was scheduled to visit Ferguson on Wednesday to meet with FBI agents who have been conducting a civil rights investigation into the shooting.

Holder and top Justice Department officials were weighing whether to open a broader civil rights investigation to look at Ferguson’s police practices at large, according to law enforcement officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions. The issue came up after news reports revealed a 2009 case in which a man said that four police officers beat him, then charged him with damaging government property - by getting blood on their uniforms.

Under Holder, the Justice Department has opened nearly two dozen such investigations into police departments nationwide, more than twice as many as were opened in the previous five years, according to department data.

As clashes between the police and street protesters continued on Tuesday, federal authorities learned the results of an autopsy performed on Brown by military coroners that showed that he had been shot six times, though they declined to release further details until their investigation was finished. An autopsy conducted on behalf of Brown’s family also found that he had been shot at least six times - including once in the face and once in the top of his head - with all bullets striking him in the front. The county has also done its own autopsy, which found evidence of marijuana in Brown’s system.

The Brown family has scheduled a funeral for Monday.

In a statement Tuesday night, Gov. Jay Nixon expressed sympathy for the Brown family and praised residents for “standing against armed and violent instigators.” But he also said that “a vigorous prosecution must now be pursued.”

“The democratically elected St. Louis County prosecutor and the attorney general of the United States each have a job to do,” Nixon said. “Their obligation to achieve justice in the shooting death of Michael Brown must be carried out thoroughly, promptly and correctly; and I call upon them to meet those expectations.”

The fatal confrontation began on Aug. 9 shortly after the police received reports that two men had robbed a convenience store in Ferguson. Wilson, who was not responding to the robbery, had stopped to speak with Brown and a friend, Dorian Johnson. The Ferguson police chief, Thomas Jackson, said that it was around the time that Wilson started talking to the two that he realized they fit the description of the suspects in the convenience store robbery.

A lawyer for Johnson said that his client was interviewed by the FBI and the St. Louis County Police last week for nearly four hours. In that interview, Johnson admitted that he and Brown had stolen cigarillos from the store, said the lawyer, Freeman R. Bosley Jr.

Bosley said that the officer told the two to get off the street, adding that Johnson told the officer that he lived nearby. They got into a bit of a verbal dispute with the officer about whether walking in the street constituted a crime, Bosley said.

Contrary to what several witnesses have told law enforcement officials, Bosley said that the officer then reached out of the window with his left hand and grabbed Brown by the throat. He said Brown pushed him off, and the officer then grabbed Brown’s shirt.

“My client sees the officer pull a gun and hears him say, ‘I’ll shoot you’ - then ‘pow!’ there was a shot,” Bosley said, referring to the one that apparently went off in the car. “He did not describe a scuffle. It was more of a scuffle for him to get away.”

Asked if Brown had punched the officer, Bosley said that Johnson “did not observe that.”

However, law enforcement officials say witnesses and forensic analysis have shown that Wilson did suffer an injury during the struggle in the car.

As Wilson got out of his car, the men were running away. The officer fired his weapon but did not hit anyone, according to law enforcement officials.

Johnson took cover near a parked car as he saw the officer confronting Brown, Bosley said.

A man who lives nearby, Michael T. Brady, said in an interview that he saw the initial altercation in the patrol car, although he struggled to see exactly what was happening.

“It was something strange,” Brady, 32, a janitor, said. “Something was not right. It was some kind of altercation. I can’t say whether he was punching the officer or whatever. But something was going on in that window, and it didn’t look right.”

Brady said he had been interviewed by county investigators, but not the FBI.

Brady said he could see Johnson at the front passenger side of the car when he and Brown suddenly started running. Brady did not hear a gunshot or know what caused them to run. But he said he did see a police officer get out of the patrol car and start walking briskly while firing on Brown as he fled.

What happened next could be what the case turns on.

Several witnesses have told investigators that Brown stopped and turned around with his arms up.

According to his account to the Ferguson police, Wilson said that Brown had lowered his arms and moved toward him, law enforcement officials said. Fearing that the teenager was going to attack him, the officer decided to use deadly force. Some witnesses have backed up that account. Others, however - including Johnson - have said that Brown did not move toward the officer before the final shots were fired.

A lawyer for the police union, Greg Kleoppel, did not return calls for comment.

The FBI, Bosley said, pressed Johnson to say how high Brown’s hands were. Johnson said that his hands were not that high, and that one was lower than the other, because he appeared to be “favoring it,” the lawyer said.

James McKnight, who also said he saw the shooting, said that Brown’s hands were up right after he turned around to face the officer.

“I saw him stumble toward the officer, but not rush at him,” McKnight said in a brief interview. “The officer was about six or seven feet away from him.”

Also Tuesday, a few miles from Ferguson, St. Louis Metropolitan police officers shot and killed an emotionally disturbed 23-year-old black man. The shooting threatened to further inflame a community still reeling from Brown’s death.

Sam Dotson, the chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, said two officers encountered a man at the Six Stars Market in northwest St. Louis behaving “erratically” and brandishing a knife. The officers repeatedly warned, “Stop, drop the knife,” but he refused, Dotson said. The man approached the officers, knife raised, and was shot after he came within three or four feet, the chief said.

In a sign of how tense the situation remains, Dotson made a point of going out into a crowd at the scene of the shooting to tell them what the police understood had occurred. “I think it’s important that people understand what happened,” he said. He said that several witnesses confirmed the account of the officers, including a local alderman. “I want this message to be out as truthfully and quickly as possible,” the chief said.

But not all in the crowd were willing to listen. A small group of protesters, most of them black, gathered at the scene chanting, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” But the crowd dissipated before nightfall.

“Even if this is a legitimate shooting, they are going to capitalize on this and try to use it for their martial law agenda,” said Christopher Hobbs, 21, who had joined dozens of other residents at the scene.

Tuesday updates

Protesters continued marching after sundown, though there were no immediate reports of clashes with police.

Ferguson said the city is exploring ways to increase the number of African-American applicants to the law enforcement academy.

Gov. Jay Nixon said he would not seek the removal of St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch from overseeing the investigation. McCulloch’s family connections to police have been cited by some who question his ability to be impartial.

The Associated Press

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