After a 5-month, secret re-investigation of the case, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell announced today that he will not bring any charges against former police officer Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown.
“Because of the significance of this case to this community and because the family asked, I believed it was necessary to conduct a reexamination of the evidence in the case and come to our own conclusion,” Bell said.
Bell said thousands of pages of documents, including witness statements, forensic reports and other evidence, were examined in his review.
“The question for this office was a simple one: Could we prove beyond a reasonable doubt that when Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown he committed murder or manslaughter under Missouri law,” the prosecutor said. “After an independent and in-depth review of the evidence we cannot conclude that he did.
Bell added “Our investigation does not exonerate Darren Wilson.” That’s a nice touch given that it’s not his job to exonerate anyone.
I’ve written about the details of this case many times before so I’m not going to rehash all of them now. If you’re not familiar with them or need a refresher check out this post written on the 5th anniversary of Brown’s death. Simply put, the forensic evidence and the most reliable witnesses supported officer Wilson’s account of what happened that day. A subsequent DOJ investigation backed that up.
What I do want to highlight is the backstory of this case as it relates to Wesley Bell and former prosecutor Bob McCulloch. Back in 2014, McCulloch was under tremendous pressure to bring charges against officer Wilson. Instead, McCulloch took the case to a grand jury. The grand jury declined to indict Wilson and McCulloch was once again blamed for this. As the AP put it in its story today, “Critics…accused McCulloch of swaying the grand jury to its decision not to indict Wilson — an accusation he emphatically denied.” Here’s how the NY Times covered it back in 2014:
In an unusual step, Mr. McCulloch had said he would present all known witnesses and evidence and instead of recommending an indictment, as is usually the case, let the jurors decide for themselves what if any charges to bring.
The officer’s testimony, delivered without the cross-examination of a trial in the earliest phase of the three-month inquiry, was the only direct account of the fatal encounter. It appeared to form the spine of a narrative that unfolded before the jurors over three months, buttressed, the prosecutors said, by the most credible witnesses, forensic evidence and three autopsies.
But the gentle questioning of Officer Wilson revealed in the transcripts, and the sharp challenges prosecutors made to witnesses whose accounts seemed to contradict his narrative, have led some to question whether the process was as objective as Mr. McCulloch claims.
Opinion pieces about the case were a lot less subtle. Here’s one that ran at the time by a CNN contributor:
Sadly, the grand jury’s failure to return an indictment of Wilson was not surprising. But don’t blame the grand jury; blame McCulloch. He oversaw the proceedings and bears responsibility for their outcome…
The grand jury only needed to find “probable cause” to charge Wilson. That’s one of the lowest legal standards in our justice system, below “beyond a reasonable doubt” (required for a criminal conviction) and “preponderance of the evidence” (the standard in a civil trial). The fact that McCulloch did not get an indictment for a killing that shocked the nation raises questions about whether he really wanted an indictment.
When McCulloch finally announced that no indictment had been returned by the grand jury, the riots began in earnest in Ferguson. Michael Brown’s stepfather was caught on video telling a crowd to “Burn this b**tch down!” The anger over the decision not only led to riots but also eventually led to Wesley Bell winning a 2018 primary election to replace Bob McCulloch.
Bell, a former Ferguson councilman, upset McCulloch, a staunch law-and-order prosecutor, in the 2018 Democratic primary and ran unopposed that November. Within days of taking office, Bell took steps to remove three veteran assistant prosecutors, including Kathi Alizadeh, who played a role in presenting evidence to the grand jury in the Ferguson case.
So here we are nearly six years later. Bell now has McCulloch’s job and spent months on a secret re-examination of all of the evidence in the case to see if he could bring the charges that so many faulted Bob McCulloch for not bringing. The result, as you can see, is exactly the same. McCulloch, the grand jury and the DOJ did their jobs in this case and all reached the same conclusion. The reason there have never been any indictments is not because of prosecutorial bias, it’s because there’s no credible case to bring here. It would be nice if, instead of offering excuses and comments about a lack of exoneration, Wesley Bell would just admit he and many, many others were wrong about this case.