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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Harris, Warren Wrong About Brown Shooting

On Aug. 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in what the Obama administration’s Department of Justice determined was an act of “self-defense.” But Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren referred to Brown’s death as a “murder.”

On the fifth anniversary of Brown’s death, Harris tweeted, “Michael Brown’s murder forever changed Ferguson and America. His tragic death sparked a desperately needed conversation and a nationwide movement.” Warren tweeted: “5 years ago Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael was unarmed yet he was shot 6 times.”

Some of their fellow Democratic presidential candidates also tweeted about Brown’s death, but they did not say Brown was “murdered.” Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand said Brown was “killed” by a police officer, which he was. However, the Obama administration investigation, conducted by the Criminal Section of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Missouri and the FBI, found that “the evidence does not support an indictment of [officer] Darren Wilson.”

Brown was shot at least six times, as Warren said: The DOJ report said a ballistics analysis showed Wilson fired 12 shots and that he hit Brown six to eight times, according to autopsies. Brown’s death also boosted a “nationwide movement” — the Black Lives Matter movement — and “conversation,” as Harris said.

His death led to weeks of protests, some turning violent. When a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson on Nov. 24, 2014, then-President Barack Obama addressed the nation, saying, “we need to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation. The fact is, in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color.”

In fact, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division issued a separate report in 2015 on its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, finding that the department’s focus on revenue had led to “a pattern of unconstitutional policing” and court “procedures that raise due process concerns.” It said both the police and court practices “reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes” and that “discriminatory intent” had contributed to racial disparities. “Over time, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices have sown deep mistrust between parts of the community and the police department, undermining law enforcement legitimacy among African Americans in particular,” the DOJ report said.

The city settled a wrongful death lawsuit in 2017, agreeing to pay $1.5 million to Brown’s parents.

But on the issue of whether Wilson acted in self-defense in shooting Brown, the DOJ’s 86-page report said that he had.

The shots Wilson fired “were in self-defense and thus were not objectively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment,” which prohibits unreasonable seizures and use of force, the report said. It concluded that Wilson’s “actions do not constitute prosecutable violations under the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute, 18 U.S.C. § 242, which prohibits uses of deadly force that are ‘objectively unreasonable,’ as defined by the United States Supreme Court.”

Department of Justice Report Regarding the Criminal Investigation into the Shooting Death of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson, March 4, 2015: As detailed throughout this report, the evidence does not establish that the shots fired by Wilson were objectively unreasonable under federal law. The physical evidence establishes that Wilson shot Brown once in the hand, at close range, while Wilson sat in his police SUV, struggling with Brown for control of Wilson’s gun. Wilson then shot Brown several more times from a distance of at least two feet after Brown ran away from Wilson and then turned and faced him. There are no witness accounts that federal prosecutors, and likewise a jury, would credit to support the conclusion that Wilson fired at Brown from behind. With the exception of the two wounds to Brown’s right arm, which indicate neither bullet trajectory nor the direction in which Brown was moving when he was struck, the medical examiners’ reports are in agreement that the entry wounds from the latter gunshots were to the front of Brown’s body, establishing that Brown was facing Wilson when these shots were fired. This includes the fatal shot to the top of Brown’s head. The physical evidence also establishes that Brown moved forward toward Wilson after he turned around to face him. The physical evidence is corroborated by multiple eyewitnesses.

Those eyewitnesses “stated that Brown appeared to pose a physical threat to Wilson as he moved toward Wilson.” The report said that the “use of deadly force is justified when the officer has ‘probable cause to believe that the suspect pose[s] a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others.'”

The report went on to say that there was “no credible evidence” disproving Wilson’s stated intent — that he believed Brown was a threat to him.

DOJ report, March 4, 2015: Multiple credible witnesses corroborate virtually every material aspect of Wilson’s account and are consistent with the physical evidence. Even if the evidence established that Wilson’s actions were unreasonable, the government would also have to prove that Wilson acted willfully, i.e. that he acted with a specific intent to violate the law. As discussed above, Wilson’s stated intent for shooting Brown was in response to a perceived deadly threat. The only possible basis for prosecuting Wilson under Section 242 would therefore be if the government could prove that his account is not true – i.e., that Brown never punched and grabbed Wilson at the SUV, never struggled with Wilson over the gun, and thereafter clearly surrendered in a way that no reasonable officer could have failed to perceive. Not only do eyewitnesses and physical evidence corroborate Wilson’s account, but there is no credible evidence to disprove Wilson’s perception that Brown posed a threat to Wilson as Brown advanced toward him.

The Washington Post Fact Checker in March 2015 cited the DOJ report in debunking a popular belief that Brown had raised his hands in surrender and said “don’t shoot.” The DOJ investigation found: “Witness accounts suggesting that Brown was standing still with his hands raised in an unambiguous signal of surrender when Wilson shot Brown are inconsistent with the physical evidence, are otherwise not credible because of internal inconsistencies, or are not credible because of inconsistencies with other credible evidence.”

Harris and Warren may disagree with the findings of the Obama administration’s Justice Department, as Michael Brown’s father does. On the anniversary of Brown’s death on Aug. 9, Michael Brown Sr. called for a reopening of the investigation into the fatal shooting of his son.

“Justice has not been served,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “My son was murdered in cold blood, with no remorse and no medical treatment.”

We contacted the Harris and Warren campaigns about the candidates’ statements, but we have not received a response.