The chief prosecutor of St. Louis County announced Thursday that he will not blame the former police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. This is a dramatic decision that could open old wounds in a renewed and intense national discussion of racial injustice and police treatment of minorities.
Almost six years ago, a large jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the white cop who shot the black 18-year-old Brown. Civil rights activists and Brown's mother had hoped prosecutor Wesley Bell, the district's first black prosecutor, would reopen the case after taking office in January 2019.
"My heart is breaking" for Michael's parents, Bell said during a press conference. "I know that this is not the result they were looking for and that their pain will last forever."
Bell described the announcement as "one of the most difficult things I had to do" and said that his office conducted a five-month review of testimony, forensic reports, and other evidence.
“The question for this office was simple. Could we prove beyond a doubt that when Darren Wilson shot Micheal Brown he committed murder or homicide under the Missouri law? After an independent and thorough review of the evidence, we cannot prove that he did so, ”said Bell.
But he said, "Our investigation doesn't relieve Darren Wilson."
Wilson's lawyer Neil Bruntrager did not immediately return The Associated Press phone and email messages.
The police shots in August 2014 sparked months of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and made the St. Louis suburb synonymous with a national debate on minority police treatment. The Ferguson riots helped consolidate the Black Lives Matter national movement that began after Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black man, was shot dead in Florida in 2012.
The subject has been given new life since George Floyd's death in Minneapolis in May after a white cop handcuffed his knee into the black man's neck for almost eight minutes. Ferguson is one of the cities around the world where protests have taken place since Floyd's death.
"This is a time for us to think about Michael's life, support Michael's family, and honor a transformative movement that will be linked to his name forever," said Bell.
Bell, who took office as a reform-oriented prosecutor in January 2019 and promised to remove the bail for non-violent criminals and to increase the use of programs that enable the defendants to avoid prison terms, saw no restrictions on checking Brown's death for possible murder charges across from . Wilson was never indicted and brought to trial, so double exposure was not a problem. There is no statute of limitations for filing murder charges.
When the press conference ended, an observer broke out in anger over Bell.
"It's over! A term!" The man who gave no name shouted as a prosecutor. Police gently led the man out of the room.
The gunfight took place after Wilson Brown told a friend to leave the street when they walked down Canfield Drive on a Sunday afternoon. There was an argument between Wilson and Brown, which ended in the fatal shot. Wilson said Brown had threatened him and forced him to fire his self-defense weapon.
Brown's body remained on the street for four hours, angering his family and residents. Some people initially said Brown raised his hands at the surrender when Wilson fired, although a large jury and the U.S. Department of Justice did not consider these accounts credible.
Bell's predecessor, longtime prosecutor Bob McCulloch, criticized considerably that he had brought the case to a large jury instead of indicting Wilson himself. Critics also accused McCulloch of prompting the grand jury to decide not to indict Wilson – an allegation he emphatically denied. Wilson resigned days after McCulloch's announcement on November 24, 2014 that the grand jury would not indict the officer.
The Department of Justice also declined to indict Wilson, but released a devastating report alleging racist prejudice against Ferguson's police and courts.
Bell, a former city councilor from Ferguson, angered McCulloch, a staunch prosecutor for law and order, in the 2018 Democratic primary and ran without opponents in November. Within a few days of taking office, Bell took steps to remove three experienced deputy prosecutors, including Kathi Alizadeh, who played a role in providing evidence to the grand jury in the Ferguson case.
In his campaign to drop McCulloch, Bell focused on major criminal issues, not McCulloch's treatment of the Wilson investigation.
Bell, who, like McCulloch, is the son of a police officer, said in an interview after the election that he would appoint independent special prosecutors for allegations of misconduct by officials. He said he would "200%" support the police as long as they acted appropriately. But he said officers who break the law must be held accountable.
Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, asked Republican Governor Mike Parson to resume the investigation in 2018. Bell’s victory was “a clear mandate for the people of St. Louis to reform the criminal justice system, beginning with ensuring justice for my son. However, the Parson office said there was no legal authority to appoint a special prosecutor.
Justin Hansford, general manager of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, also called for the Brown investigation to be resumed. In a Washington Post statement in August 2019, he described McCulloch's fall as "a sign of hope and change".
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