Yesterday, I saw someone ask supporters of Darren Wilson sarcastically if there was ever a time in their mind that the shooting of an unarmed person was unjustified. In answer to that rhetorical question, there are plenty of cases where shooting an unarmed person is unjustified and I will discuss a few scenarios to that effect. Also, for the record, while I’m going to answer this question, I don’t exactly consider myself a Darren Wilson supporter, not because I think Mike Brown is innocent, not because I think that Darren Wilson is innocent, but because I don’t feel that I have enough facts at this point.
With that said, since much of the justification conversation on the national stage has been viewed from the shadow of the George Zimmerman verdict I’ll discuss that case briefly. Without summarizing the dead horse that the case became, in my opinion, George Zimmerman was probably guilty and I realize making that statement will rub some people the wrong way. Unfortunately, since only one participant of the two involved in the incident survived, reasonable doubt was a much harder burden to overcome for prosecutors. If George Zimmerman had stayed out of the media spotlight, that burden would have been even greater. However, he gave detailed accounts of his side of the story which in my view helped to paint a very convoluted story that hurt George far more than helped.
Quite frankly, many portions of his story didn’t add up, but setting aside the unlikely scenario that George describes, where Trayvon Martin simply attacked him, the bigger problem was George’s refusal to stop following Trayvon after the dispatcher advised him to do so. The fact that George exited his vehicle while following Trayvon, the comment on 911 that these whatever’s “always get away,” and then wound up in an altercation with Trayvon pretty much goes to show that George was lying in his interview with Sean Hannity when he claimed that he stopped following the black youth.
What’s more, assuming that Trayvon Martin had in fact been casing residences or cars for property crimes or even a home invasion, the chances that he would simply attack George for no reason and draw attention to himself are supremely unlikely. Of course, the reality was that Trayvon was unarmed so the chances that he was planning on committing anything other than a property offense are minute, Mike Brown not withstanding.
The only scenario that makes sense is that George was actively following Trayvon, despite his later claims otherwise, and while Trayvon may have escalated things, may have even landed the first blow, George had no legal authority to stop Trayvon in the first place. From this point on, the resulting altercation, regardless of who threw the first punch, is George’s fault as per Florida law, Trayvon had every bit the same right to stand his ground as George. George Zimmerman was not an officer affecting an arrest. Stand your ground only applies if you have a legal right to be doing whatever it is you’re doing. Following someone in the dark, harassing them, and making them reasonably afraid that you mean them harm does not and should not apply. It would also seem that a verbal altercation took place as well though George was unable or unwilling to give an account of the resulting dialogue that made much sense.
Once the fight started, did Trayvon take matters a step too far bashing George’s head against the ground and escalate matters disproportionately to the point that George had no other choice than to use deadly force? Did Trayvon threaten to kill George? I don’t know and this is where reasonable doubt comes in, an unfortunate but necessary component of due process and the fifth amendment.
The issue I keep coming back to with this case is what if Trayvon had been a plain clothes officer since George had never met him before and had no way of knowing? The area was apparently high crime and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the police might have had a plain clothes officer walking through the neighborhood trying to see if they could catch either crimes actively being committed or people casing the place for future crimes. It would also make sense that 911 wouldn’t reveal this information to George when he called and may have even been dismissive knowing that the person he was describing was an officer. Having been in near this exact type of situation before plain clothes, I know that if a resident had followed me and particularly if they had tried to stop me, I would be forced to defend myself.
In the above scenario, George would hopefully be found in court to be completely unjustified in shooting me. So, if in the case of George Zimmerman, the evidence showed conclusively that, George exited his vehicle after calling 911, followed Trayvon Martin after being advised not to do so, attempted to detain Martin by force, firearm, or other resulting in an altercation, and then attempted to use deadly force as he was losing a fight he started, I would say that George Zimmerman’s shooting was unjustified and he should be charged with second degree murder or manslaughter. Unfortunately, while I think the above scenario is likely what happened, proving beyond reasonable doubt that I’m right is excessively difficult when physical evidence is limited and the only witness to the entire event is your suspect.
Contrast that case with the initial information out there about Ofc. Darren Wilson. Darren Wilson was either detaining Mike Brown and Dorian Johnson for a minor traffic offense or had been made aware of the robbery that took place about five to six minutes earlier.
There has been some issue found with the fact that the Ferguson Police Chief Jackson, said in an interview that Wilson did not know about the robbery at the time Wilson initially made contact with Mike and Dorian. However, Wilson made contact with the pair twice. He first made contact when he told them to get out of the road, may have even cursed at them while saying it, and then drove down the street. Wilson returned shortly after which may have signified that he had just heard about the robbery over the radio. In this case, Chief Jackson’s statement about Wilson not being aware of the robbery when he first made contact would still be true. After all, Wilson was not aware of the robbery when he first told them to get out of the road.
Whatever happened next, in the course of Wilson’s official duties, he has every right to detain the pair for a traffic offense, both walking in the middle of the street, or for the strong armed robbery of Ferguson Market. He had every legal authority to do so and do so without having to fight with either one of them. The current evidence seems to be that Mike Brown resisted arrest, though justifying a shooting is much more complicated than justifying a detention or arrest. An altercation of some kind clearly took place at the car from both Chief Jackson’s statements and from Dorian Johnson’s statements. While it is possible, it does seem unlikely that the much smaller Darren Wilson chose to try and physically assault Mike Brown for no reason.
Now, in the interest of my title and theme of justification let me explain a scenario where Darren Wilson would be unjustified to shoot Mike Brown. Let’s assume for a minute that Chief Jackson’s account of what happened is accurate up to this point in the narrative. Let’s say that Mike Brown was resisting because he feared that detention would result in his arrest for the robbery and assault he had just committed. Let’s even say that Mike Brown went for Darren Wilson’s gun and Mike’s hand on the slide of the gun caused the cut seen in the autopsy diagram when the weapon discharged inside the car.
If Mike Brown fled, turned around with his hands up surrendering, and then was shot six times as Darren pursued him, that scenario would not be a justified shooting even if Wilson had been initially justified in drawing his weapon and firing while being assaulted within his patrol car. Missouri Law not only requires that one be in fear of death or serious bodily injury to be justified in the use of deadly force, but also that they be in fear of IMMINENT death or serious bodily injury. If Mike Brown was in fact surrendering, then Darren Wilson is guilty of shooting Mike as retaliation and not to neutralize a threat. In this case, he would be guilty of murder (probably Second Degree).
The problem remains that proving these last moments is difficult. The community has made this situation even more difficult by looting, rioting, and tying up resources that otherwise could have been used on the case. What’s more, the supposed eye witnesses that have come forward in the media have not done themselves any favors by making contradictory statements, some of which were made before the Family’s autopsy results were released, and now have been completely discredited as a result.
Now we all wait for the Grand Jury to return either with or without an indictment. There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation surrounding the Grand Jury process.
The Grand Jury Process
A Grand Jury is typically convened in place of a warrant on cases that are complicated, cases with largely circumstantial evidence, or cases with evidence in contention. Given the vast divide within the community over the perceived guilt and innocence of Darren Wilson and Michael Brown, much is still a matter of contention. The Grand Jury allows for the prosecutor to be more objective since a failure to return with a true bill is ultimately the decision of a panel of the people as opposed to the decision of one man or woman.
So far, it has been leaked that the Darren Wilson Grand Jury consists of three black people and nine white people. There seems to be a lot of confusion by this and many have expressed in social media and elsewhere that the 75/25 split represented by the demographic makeup is not representative of the city of Ferguson which has a white-to-black ratio of approximately 33/67.
However, the Grand Jury and the case at large is a function of St. Louis County. The entire county elects the prosecutor and not just the city of Ferguson. What’s more the population of St. Louis County is 998,954. The population of Ferguson is 21,203. For the record, the city makes up 2.1% of the county. The racial make up of the county is approximately 70% white and 23% black which makes the Grand Jury about as representative as possible.
All we can do is wait and hope that whatever happens next doesn’t result in more violence.
In an unrelated but last minute update, a series of road blocks are apparently scheduled for 9/10/2014 around the St. Louis area. This protest was originally scheduled for 9/1/2014 but was cancelled at the last second. A few people didn’t get the memo and shut down a portion of I-270 near W. Florissant briefly.