America has an adversarial system of justice, which is based on the premise that fact-finders can best get the real story by considering the opposing narratives of the contending parties in a dispute. (A cynical old Chicago lawyer once described this as the theory that “out of the clash of lies, truth will emerge.”)
As a matter of law, adjudicating the killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson required interpreting a mass of confusing and sometimes contradictory accounts in a way that forced the facts of that tragic encounter into a narrative to which the relevant law could be applied.
The relevant law in such situations is often difficult to apply, precisely because it is so fact-specific, while the search for unambiguous facts in these situations often ends up producing deep uncertainty, rather than anything resembling an undisputed truth.
The relevant law here consisted of Missouri’s statute regulating the use of deadly force by police officers, as modified by Supreme Court decisions that put limits on how much freedom states can give police to use such force.
On its face, Missouri law still follows the old common law rule that it’s lawful to shoot and kill a fleeing suspected felon, even if the suspect doesn’t pose an immediate danger to the police or the public. That rule was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court nearly 30 years ago, but Missouri hasn’t yet revised its statutes to reflect this.
Because of that Supreme Court ruling, the grand jury in this case was instructed that—under current Missouri law—Wilson could have legally shot and killed Brown only if Wilson “reasonably believed that [Brown] was attempting to escape by the use of a deadly weapon or would endanger life or inflict serious physical injury unless arrested without delay, and [Wilson] reasonably believed that the use of deadly force was immediately necessary to effect the arrest of the offender,” to quote the standard jury instruction used in the state.
It appears the grand jury accepted Wilson’s account of the encounter. Even though Brown was unarmed, the jury concluded that Wilson had a reasonable belief that Brown would kill or seriously hurt him or someone else if Wilson didn’t arrest him immediately. Furthermore, the jury found it was reasonable on Wilson’s part to believe that shooting Brown was necessary to stop him from evading arrest.
How believable was Wilson’s account, given that he is the very definition of a self-interested witness? (How reliable were the other witnesses, given the extraordinarily charged atmosphere surrounding this case?) Was it reasonable on the jury’s part to accept that Wilson’s actions were reasonable under the circumstances? (The idea of reasonableness, which is obviously a tricky concept at the best of times, is forced to do a lot of heavy lifting in difficult legal disputes.)
Wilson’s belief, assuming he had such a belief, that Brown was going to kill or seriously hurt him if Wilson didn’t shoot him was reasonable depending on what precisely Brown did in the course of their encounter. Did Brown try to grab Wilson’s weapon? Even if he did, was Brown running away from Wilson when Wilson shot him? (According to some accounts, Brown had run away from Wilson after an initial struggle, but then stopped, turned, and put his hands up in the air to surrender.)
How much distance was there between the two men when Brown was shot? Did Wilson testify that Brown was running back toward him? What did other eyewitnesses testify they saw? To what extent was the testimony the grand jury heard corroborated or contradicted by forensic evidence?
Commenters who haven’t seen the evidence—such as it is—available to the grand jury will nevertheless condemn or celebrate the jury’s findings, granting to themselves a sanctimonious omniscience that the men and women who had to make the decision didn’t possess.
Cases like this bring to mind Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, the film that famously features the depiction of a violent incident from the perspectives of four witness-participants. The witnesses all contradict each other on various key points, and the audience is left to ponder how difficult it is to discern what really happened in a world full of biased, confused, and otherwise unreliable storytellers.
We can hope that after reading the grand jury testimony, the public at large can form a more measured judgment than that now being excreted by countless pundits. I suspect that evidence may end up reminding us of the wisdom at the core of Kurosawa’s masterpiece.