St. Louis County’s top prosecutor announced Thursday that he will not charge the former police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a dramatic decision that could reopen old wounds amid a renewed and intense national conversation about racial injustice and the police treatment of people of color.
It was nearly six years ago that a grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot Brown, a Black 18-year-old. Civil rights leaders and Brown’s mother had hoped that Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, the county’s first Black prosecutor, would reopen the case after he took office in January 2019.
“My heart breaks” for Brown's parents, Bell said during a news conference. “I know this is not the result they were looking for and that their pain will continue forever.”
Describing the announcement as “one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do,” Bell said that his office conducted a five-month review of witness statements, forensic reports and other evidence.
“The question for this office was a simple one: Could we prove beyond a reasonable doubt that when Darren Wilson shot Micheal Brown he committed murder or manslaughter under Missouri law? After an independent and in-depth review of the evidence, we cannot prove that he did,” Bell said.
But, he said, “our investigation does not exonerate Darren Wilson.”
Wilson’s attorney, Jim Towey, noted that Bell’s review followed investigations by Bell’s predecessor, a grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice.
“We all had the same conclusion: There was no crime,” Towey said.
“I am just hoping that everybody gets to have some closure, particularly the Brown family,” he said.
The August 2014 police shooting touched off months of unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and made the St. Louis suburb synonymous with a national debate about police treatment of minority people. The Ferguson unrest helped solidify the national Black Lives Matter movement that began after Trayvon Martin, a Black 17-year-old, was shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida in 2012.
The issue has taken on new life since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May after a white police officer pressed his knee into the handcuffed Black man’s neck for several minutes. Ferguson is among the cities around the world that has seen protests since Floyd’s death.
“This is a time for us to reflect on Michael’s life, to support Michael’s family and to honor a transformative movement that will forever be linked to his name,” Bell said.
In a statement sent to The Associated Press, Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns at Color Of Change, a national racial justice organization, said Bell’s announcement “perpetuates a criminal justice system that fails Black communities by allowing police to operate with impunity.”
“Today’s announcement by Attorney Bell to not pursue charges reinforces the importance of making the systemic changes necessary to end over-policing and the structural racism built to protect police officers from accountability,” Roberts said in a statement.
The Rev. Darryl Gray, a leading St. Louis activist, said he was disappointed but not surprised.
“What came out of this is a recognition that the system is set up to protect police officers. We now need to begin to address the legislation the police hide behind.”
Bell — who took office in January 2019 as a reform-minded prosecutor promising to eliminate cash bail for nonviolent offenders and to increase the use of programs that allow defendants to avoid jail time — faced no restrictions in re-examining Brown’s death for potential murder charges. Wilson was never charged and tried, so double jeopardy was not an issue. There is no statute of limitations on filing murder charges.
As the news conference drew to a close, an activist who said he is a friend of Brown’s father, Mike Brown Sr., erupted in anger.
“It’s over! One term!” Tory Russell, 36, of St. Louis, screamed at the prosecuting attorney. Police officers gently led him from the room.
Russell later told The Associated Press that his friend is “hurting and he’s not accepting of this.”
The shooting happened after Wilson told Brown and a friend to get out of the street as they walked down the middle of Canfield Drive on a Sunday afternoon. A scuffle between Wilson and Brown ensued, ending with the fatal shot. Wilson said Brown came at him menacingly, forcing him to fire his gun in self-defense.
Brown’s body remained in the street for four hours, angering his family and nearby residents.
Bell’s predecessor, longtime prosecutor Bob McCulloch, drew considerable criticism for taking the case to a grand jury rather than charging Wilson himself. Critics also accused McCulloch of swaying the grand jury to its decision not to indict Wilson — an accusation he emphatically denied. Wilson resigned days after McCulloch’s Nov. 24, 2014, announcement that the grand jury would not indict the officer.
The Justice Department also declined to charge Wilson, but issued a scathing report citing racial bias in Ferguson’s police and courts.
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.
In his campaign to unseat McCulloch, Bell focused on larger criminal justice issues, not on McCulloch’s handling 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 wrongdoing by officers. He said he would support police “200 percent” as long as they act appropriately. But he said officers who violate the law must be held accountable.
Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, asked Republican Gov. Mike Parson to reopen the investigation in 2018, saying Bell’s win was “a clear mandate from the people of St. Louis to reform the criminal justice system, which first begins with securing justice for my son.” But Parson’s office said it had no legal authority to appoint a special prosecutor.
“The St. Louis County Police Department is in dire need of change," John Bowman, president of the NAACP St. Louis County, said in a statement after Bell's news conference. “The prosecutor’s office and the Police Department work too closely together on these issues and that is clearly seen. NAACP St. Louis County continues to fight for criminal justice reform and will continue to stand with families who suffer at the hands of our local Police Department.”