Witness 34 Tells It Like It Was

Paul wrote earlier today about the Ferguson grand jury’s Witness #10, one of the very few people who witnessed the confrontation between Officer Wilson and Mike Brown from beginning to end. I haven’t read the entire record of the grand jury proceedings, which is lengthy. But I have read quite a bit of it, and it is pretty obvious that the witnesses who were actually anywhere near the scene support Wilson’s account in substance. The most interesting witness I have come across is #34, an older African-American man with a checkered past who happened on the scene as the confrontation was beginning to unfold.

Based on more than 40 years of questioning witnesses and evaluating their testimony, I assess #34 as reliable, although of course not infallible. (Like most people, he has no idea how long a minute is, a fact he acknowledges.) #34 has several criminal convictions on his record–one for firing a gun at a man who threatened to kill him, another for drugs. He admits he was guilty of those violations, but is still irate about a burglary charge with regard to which he insists he was innocent. I believe him.

Witness #34 grew up in the South at a time when his father told him that if a policeman came toward him on the sidewalk, he had to get off the sidewalk. It came out during his testimony that he doesn’t know how to read. His feelings toward the police are mixed at best:

Q.: So do you have a general distrust of police officers?

A.: Yes, I do.

Q. So you don’t like to be–

A. I don’t like them. I know we can’t live without the police, okay, because this world would be messed up, you know? You turn the TV on all the time, people killing people every day, but I don’t like it when they make a mistake like that and don’t try, you know, to straighten them out.

So Witness #34 is no shill for the Ferguson Police Department. But I found him to be straightforward and intelligent. He steadfastly resisted all efforts to go beyond what he had seen with his own eyes, and his testimony was specific and concrete. He was, in short, a good witness. I would put him on the stand in a heartbeat. So what did he see?

Well, the police and the young man, they were struggling. The young man was standing outside the window and the police inside the window. And he had ahold of the young man, and the young man had ahold of him, and they are struggling with one another.

Witness #34 saw Michael Brown punching Officer Wilson through the open window:

Q.: And you describe somebody is punching or doing punching motions, which one was doing the punching, or both?

A.: I saw Michael punching a couple times through the window, I would say a few times.

Q. Okay. And did you ever see the officer punching Michael?

A.: No …

Witness #34 saw Wilson leaning toward his right and inferred that he was reaching for his gun. He saw and heard the gun shot:

I heard a shot, pow, and Mike Brown took off running.

The witness assured the assistant prosecutor that he knows what a gunshot sounds like.

[Brown] took off running, and then the officer got out of his truck and the officer had his gun down to his side like that. Looked like the officer was reaching up to his thing he had on his shirt that he talked through, and then the kid ran a piece off.

The witness describes Officer Wilson following Brown at a trot. Brown ran a little ways, then stopped and leaned against the trunk of a car. Witness #34 thought that Brown couldn’t run any farther, which caused him to think that he may have been hit by the shot fired from within the car. Why? Because “I know if somebody shot at me, I would run further than that.”

During the time he was watching, Officer Wilson never raised his gun toward Brown:

Q.: Did you ever see him once he got out of the car, did you ever see the officer point his gun at Michael Brown or in Michael Brown’s direction?

A.: Not after he got out of the car.

Then, for some reason, Michael Brown turned around and advanced toward Officer Wilson. When the witness saw Brown, he was walking, not running:

Q.: And so when you saw Michael Brown walking toward the officer, can you give me a guess or estimate as to how many steps he took or how far he walked?

A.: As far as I could tell it looked like two or three steps to me, you know, something like that.

Brown didn’t have his hands in the air at that time. That was the last that Witness #34 saw. He started to turn his car around–his vehicle had been blocked by Wilson’s police van in the middle of the street–and as he did so, he heard more shots. Pow, pow, pow, as he described them; three shots, to the best of his recollection. After that, he was gone.

Witness #34 couldn’t understand why Michael Brown would fight with a police officer:

It blew my mind because like I couldn’t believe, you know, like this ain’t happening, why are people tussling with the police, just talk to them, you know.

Eyewitnesses always see and remember incidents differently. That is to be expected. But in this case, as to the basic facts, there is remarkable consistency between the physical evidence and those who were actually present. The tragedy was set in motion when Brown attacked Wilson inside his police car. Brown repeatedly punched Wilson through the open window. Wilson struggled to get his gun into play; it discharged, but inaccurately, which suggests that the two men may have both had their hands on it. Instead of surrendering at that point, Brown ran. Wilson pursued Brown, but did not fire at him. Brown continued to run, then stopped. Instead of getting down as Wilson repeatedly ordered, he turned and advanced toward Wilson. The incident could have ended at any moment with Brown’s surrender, but tragically, it didn’t. No wonder the grand jury found no basis to charge Wilson with a crime.