Witness No. 10 and Darren Wilson’s self-defense claim

Paul Cassell, a former federal judge, has been producing the best analysis I’ve seen of the Ferguson grand jury evidence. I recommend in particular this post, which contains links to others.

Cassell notes that Missouri law on self-defense required only that Darren Wilson have a reasonable belief that he needed to use deadly force to defend himself against Michael Brown. Wilson didn’t need to show that his interpretation was the only one, just that it was reasonable — i.e., a conclusion a reasonable person could reach based on all the facts.

Cassell then examines the testimony of Witness No. 10. This witness told the grand jury that he was outside while working a job when two men (later identified as Mike Brown and Dorian Johnson) walked by him. He then was able to see the events in question from beginning to end with a direct line of sight.

Witness No. 10’s testimony matches Darren Wilson’s in every important detail. He saw Brown inside the police car window, heard a shot, and saw Brown running away (from this, the witness initially feared that Brown had killed the officer).

Witness No. 10 then saw Wilson pursue Brown with his gun drawn, but not shooting. Brown then turned around and made “some sort of body gesture.” The witness wasn’t sure what the gesture was, but stated, “I could say for sure he never put his hands up after he did his body gesture.” Instead, “he ran towards the officer full charge.” Moreover, according to Witness 10, Brown began charging immediately after making his “body gesture,” which the witness described as “like a shoulder shrug or him pulling his pants up.”

Witness No. 10 testified:

The officer fired several shots at him and to give an estimate, I would say roughly around five to six shots was fired at Mike Brown. Mike Brown was still coming towards the office and at this point I’m thinking, wow, is this officer missing Mike Brown at this close of a range.

Mike Brown continuously came forward in the charging motion and at some point, at one point he started to slow down and he came to a stop. And when he stopped, that’s when the officer ceased fire and when he ceased fired, Mike Brown started to charge once more at him. When he charged once more, the officer returned fire with, I would say, give an estimate of three to four shots. And that’s when Mike Brown finally collapsed.

Witness No. 10’s testimony is consistent with the forensic evidence — e.g. Brown’s DNA in the car, all bullets holes in the front of Brown’s body and with a downward trajectory. In addition, this witness made his original statement within 48 hours of the incident, before any autopsy and before any media reports on the physical evidence. His subsequent testimony to the grand jury matched his original statement. As noted, it also matches Wilson’s account, which was not available to Witness 10 when he made his initial statement.

Witness No. 10 wasn’t the only person who testified that Brown charged Wilson. There were, however, some witnesses who provided very different accounts. Indeed, PBS has said that its “data” showed that “[m]ore than 50 percent of the witness statements said that Michael Brown held his hands up when Darren Wilson shot him. (16 out of 29 such statements).”

Unfortunately for PBS, much of the testimony that conflicted with Witness No. 10’s is highly problematic. In some instances, it was contradicted by the physical evidence (e.g., no bullet holes in Brown’s back); in others the witnesses’ gave self-contradictory statements. The grand jury was well aware of these inconsistencies.

Witness No. 10 described the witness intimidation campaign that began almost immediately after the shooting of Brown. He recalled being verbally abused by the gathering crowd when he said what he had seen. This might help explain why accounts of the incident varied from Witness No. 10’s.

In any event, as Cassell concludes, the issue before the grand jury was whether Wilson’s assessment of the danger he faced was a reasonable one. The account of Witness 10 establishes that Wilson’s assessment was reasonable:

Witness No. 10 was a reasonable person. He thought Wilson faced a danger [that required the use of deadly force]. Unless there was good reason to doubt this witness’s apparently fair-minded assessment, Officer Wilson was entitled to use deadly force in self-defense, and the grand jury plainly did the right thing in declining to indict.

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