On Evidence and Agendas in Ferguson

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the passion with which some people rush alternately to condemn or to vindicate the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Might I suggest that we try instead to go where the evidence leads?

Part of the problem is that many of the “facts” reported about the case (and this is typical in any high-profile incident) turn out to be totally false or at least suspect. To take just one recent example, Gateway Pundit claims the officer in question suffered an “orbital blowout fracture to the eye socket.” But Charles Johnson offers pretty good reasons to doubt that account; he embeds CNN video from an eye witness that (apparently) shows the officer immediately after the shooting, and he is not obviously injured. If he had an eye injury resulting from a scuffle with Brown, it wasn’t such a “blowout” that it was obvious at a distance on camera. So did Brown injure the officer? I don’t know.

A report from yesterday’s New York Times indicates many of the problems with trying to accurately piece together what happened. “[W]itnesses have given investigators sharply conflicting accounts of the killing,” the Times summarizes. Consider some of the problems:

“Some” people claim that Brown and the officer struggled, with the officer in his vehicle and Brown reaching through the window. Apparently at that point the officer’s gun went off. Was that because the officer was reaching for it and misfired? Was that because Brown reached for it and fired it? Was that because the officer was attempting to shoot Brown at that time and missed? I don’t know.

“Many” witnesses say, “Mr. Brown ran away, the officer got out of his car and began firing toward Mr. Brown, and then Mr. Brown stopped, turned around and faced the officer.” If those witnesses are correct, then the officer shot at Brown, but did not strike him or only grazed him, while Brown’s back was turned to the officer. If that account is correct, then the question becomes: Was the officer justified in shooting at Brown as he fled?

Most people would assume that an officer may not shoot a fleeing suspect. But, according to Wikipedia, Supreme Court Justice Byron White declared that sometimes the use of potentially deadly force against a fleeing suspect may be appropriate or at least legal: “Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force.” (Missouri may have statutes or precedents regarding this matter; it would be worth someone checking.)

If Brown attempted to murder the police officer by grabbing for the officer’s gun with the intent of then shooting the officer, then that officer might reasonably have concluded that Brown posed a “threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others.” On the other hand, if Brown didn’t actually assault the officer, then for the officer to shoot Brown as he fled would have been immoral and illegal. The key question, then, is, did Brown assault the officer, and, if so, in what manner? I do not know the answer to that question.

Another possibility is that the witnesses in question are wrong, and that the officer did not shoot at Brown as he fled, but only after Brown turned around. Perhaps forensics experts can definitively nail down that point at least—but perhaps not.

Next, reports the Times, “Some witnesses say that Mr. Brown, 18, moved toward Officer [Darren] Wilson, possibly in a threatening manner, when the officer shot him dead. But others say that Mr. Brown was not moving and may even have had his hands up when he was killed.” That’s a pretty radical difference in interpretation of events by eye witnesses. So was Brown trying to attack the officer, or was he trying to surrender? I don’t know.

Unless you were there and you saw what happened with your own eyes, if you claim that, based on existing evidence, you know definitely what happened on the day of Brown’s death, I have to question your motives.