A grand jury has decided not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown.
That news stirred protests that police countered with smoke bombs Monday night. Some news organizations reported hearing gunfire. At least one police cruiser was torched.
The grand jury’s decision, revealed in a Monday evening press conference, came after months of nearly nightly and sometimes violent protests in the St. Louis suburb. It came amid anxiety over what could follow an already racially charged case.
Wilson is white. Brown was black.
The panel had pondered evidence presented by St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s office for months after the Aug. 9 shooting death.
At Monday’s news conference, McCulloch said the grand jury heard testimony from about 60 witnesses and 70 hours of testimony on 25 different days. That testimony was gathered by both local and federal investigators, he said.
And members of the grand jury, McCulloch said, posed their own questions to witnesses, asked for additional evidence and even requested that specific photographs be taken.
“They were extremely engaged in the process, asking questions of every witness,” the prosecutor said.
Largely peaceful protests had simmered through the weekend amid speculation that Wilson would not be charged and that the timing of grand jury’s conclusion was being manipulated to minimize the grand jury’s conclusion.
After McCulloch announced that the grand jury’s decision not to indict, Brown’s family issued a statement that “we are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequences of his actions.”
The family also called on people to “channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. … Please keep your protests peaceful. Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction.”
Still, the scene in Ferguson grew tense with the news that Wilson had not been indicted for the killing.
Police cars were vandalized and several gunshots were been heard on the city’s streets of Ferguson after the announcement about the grand jury’s conclusion.
County police used a bullhorn to tell crowds outside the Ferguson Police Department to disperse about 15 minutes after McCulloch’s annoucement, saying it had become an unlawful assembly.
Protesters hugged a barricade and taunted police, sometimes with expletives. Some chanted “murderer.” Gunshots were heard down the street and somebody threw a water bottle that bounced off a police shield.
Some in the crowd reportedly tried to stop others from taking part in vandalism and other violent reactions.
Likewise, protests churned across the country, most protesting police killings broadly in the context of the Ferguson case.
The 12-person grand jury deliberated in secret, like all such panels, and set its own schedule depending upon when the members were available.
Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Brown’s family, said Sunday that Brown’s relatives were frustrated with the prosecutor. While he had the option to present evidence to a grand jury, he also could have chosen to directly charge Wilson himself.
“You don’t have any direction. You’re just putting all the evidence out there and you’re going to let them figure it out and they can make up their own minds,” Crump said. “You know, it just boggles the mind why he thinks this is fair.”
McCulloch, a Democrat, has been in office since 1991 and was re-elected to another term earlier this month. He has been criticized by some as being too friendly to police in conflicts with civilians.
As McCulloch was reading his statement, Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, was sitting atop a vehicle listening to a broadcast of the announcement. When she heard the decision, she burst into tears and began screaming before being whisked away by supporters.
The crowd with her erupted in anger, converging on the barricade where police in riot gear were standing. They pushed down the barricade and began pelting police with objects, including a bullhorn. Officers stood their ground.
Barriers had been erected over the weekend around the building where the grand jury — six white men, three white women, two black women and one black man — had been meeting.
In the days and weeks leading up to the grand jury’s decision, some businesses in and near Ferguson had boarded up their windows and otherwise fortified against anticipated rioting.
Brown and another young man encountered Wilson when the officer was in a squad car. A scuffle with Wilson ended with the police officer shooting Brown at least six times.
McCulloch said witnesses offered sometimes conflicting, and sometimes shifting, accounts of what they saw. Some, pressed in subsequent interviews, conceded they had not actually seen the shooting and were relating either what they thought had happened or what they’d heard from others.
When asked by a reporter whether any of the accounts amount to perjury, he said, “I think they truly believe that’s what they saw, but they didn’t.”
But most, he said, concurred that Wilson first fired at Brown while the officer was still in his squad car and the teenager was partially through the driver’s side window.
In fact, a bullet was found lodged in the armrest of the vehicle. Critical to the investigation, the prosecutor said, were multiple interviews of witnesses looking for inconsistencies and comparisons with evidence found at the scene. Brown’s blood was found both inside and outside the vehicle and on Wilson’s uniform, McCulloch said.
“Physical evidence does not change because of public pressure or personal agenda,” the prosecutor said. “When statements were changed, witnesses were confronted. … Some witnesses admitted they didn’t actually see the shooting.”
Most witnesses, he said, recalled that after an initial gunshot or gunshots, Brown moved away from the vehicle. Witnesses seemed to disagree whether the fatal shots — those fired while Wilson was in the vehicle appeared only to graze Brown’s thumb — came as Brown was moving toward or away from the police officer.
“(But) most said the shots were fired as he moved toward Wilson,” McCulloch said.
One witness, whom McCulloch said was African American, said Brown came at Wilson at “a full charge.”
But on this point, the witnesses’ testimony seemed to diverge. Some said he raised his hands as if in surrender, some said he raised his hands only momentarily and some didn’t think he raised his hands at all.
Three autopsies were performed on Brown’s body — one by the county medical examiner, one by the Department of Defense and one privately at the family’s request.
In all, Wilson fired 12 shots. It’s unclear, McCulloch said, whether six or seven shots struck Brown because at least one wound could have come from a bullet exiting one part of his body and entering another part of his body.
The shooting quickly triggered protests that August night, and sometimes rioting, as it intensified criticism of the Ferguson police force — a unit far more white than the population of Ferguson.
Before discussing the evidence presented to the grand jury, McCulloch spoke of the demands of a 24-hour news cycle and what he deemed rumors on social media that he said fed unreliable accounts attempting to explain how the shooting played out.
That, he said, circulated “speculation and little, if any, accurate, solid information” about what actually happened. And he said that bred “suspicion among those already skeptical of the system.”
And as the grand jury deliberations stretched over weeks, worry about what its decision might spur prompted all number of preparations. Talks among local police, state authorities and protestors aimed to keep the reaction peaceful.
But none of the parties were confident that violence could be kept at bay.
The FBI reportedly sent nearly 100 additional agents to Ferguson to help law enforcement agencies. Gov. Jay Nixon created a special panel to examine the conditions that spurred the violence and to prevent a repeat of the disturbances that have rocked the city for months.
He said in a Monday night press conference that National Guard troops would be used to protect public buildings and utilities. Joined by other state and St. Louis-area public officials, the governor said a plan pieced together in anticipation of the grand jury decision aimed to protect both protesters’ free speech rights and public safety. Nixon urged “tolerance, mutual respect and restraint.”
“We are all focused on making sure the necessary resources are at hand to protect lives, to protect property and to protect free speech,” the governor said.
The governor had also declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard to help state and local police in case of civil unrest. Police have undergone training pertaining to protesters’ constitutional rights and have purchased more equipment, such as shields, helmets, smoke canisters and rubber bullets.
Dan Isom, a former St. Louis police chief and the current head of the state Department of Public Safety, said that local law enforcement and the Missouri Highway Patrol planned and trained for any response to the grand jury decision for two months.
“I have great confidence,” he said, “in the design of this plan.”
Specialized computer technicians were deployed to Ferguson to help police and the local government protect against hackers who have pledged to bring down their computer networks. The online hacking group Anonymous has weighed in regularly and was highly critically of the Ferguson Police Department. Intelligence analysts are also in the area to help identify anarchists and others who may use the verdict as an excuse to lash out violently.
Separate from the grand jury, the Justice Department is conducting two civil rights inquiries. One looks at Brown’s shooting. The second examines whether the Ferguson Police Department has fallen into a pattern of civil rights violations.
State and local officials had encouraged the Justice Department to announce the results of its inquiry into the shooting at the same time as the announcement of the grand jury’s decision. They hoped that if no charges were filed against Wilson, Attorney General Eric Holder’s credibility among fellow African-Americans might reassure people that the decision was a result of a thorough investigation.
But Holder and his top aides repeatedly refused, saying their investigation was not complete and that they would not rush it to meet the state’s timeline.
Grand juries, by Missouri law, are put together from people “selected at random from a fair cross-section of the citizens.” The jury was 75 percent white. St. Louis County is 70 percent white, but about two-thirds of Ferguson’s residents are black.
The grand jury’s term was due to expire Sept. 10, but its term was extended to Jan. 7. The jurors typically met once a week.
While grand jurors usually hear abbreviated evidence in a case, McCulloch presented a more complete version in the Ferguson case. Among the witnesses were Wilson and Dr. Michael Baden, who performed a private autopsy on Brown on behalf of his family.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.