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Conflicting details marked testimony to Ferguson grand jury

A St. Louis county police officer used police tape to secure a building that was burned during a demonstration in Dellwood, Mo.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A St. Louis county police officer used police tape to secure a building that was burned during a demonstration in Dellwood, Mo.

FERGUSON, Mo. — Michael Brown became so angry when he was stopped by Officer Darren Wilson on Canfield Drive here on Aug. 9, his face looked “like a demon,” the officer would later tell a grand jury.

He testified that when Brown reached into the officer’s vehicle and fought him for his gun, Brown was so physically overpowering that the officer “felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.”

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And when Brown ran away and then turned to face Wilson, the officer recalled, he did not raise his hands in a gesture of retreat, as many neighbors have said — he made “a grunting, like aggravated sound,” clenched his left hand into a fist, tucked his right hand under his shirt toward his waistband and began running at the officer, who shot him dead.

That account, a vivid and vastly different version from what many people believe happened Aug. 9, was given by Wilson when he testified before a St. Louis County grand jury in September.

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The officer’s recollections of that day, told over several hours, were part of a trove of thousands of pages of documents released to the public Monday after the county prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch, announced that the grand jury had decided to bring no criminal charges in the case.

Wilson’s version of events was just one part of a vast catalog of testimony and other evidence that the grand jurors absorbed during the three months that they heard the case. Yet it appeared to have helped convince the jurors, a group of nine whites and three African-Americans, that the officer had committed no crime when he killed Brown. On Monday, the announcement that there was no indictment set off violent protests, burning and looting throughout the beleaguered St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.

Most grand jury proceedings are swift and simple: a few witnesses are called, the prosecutor makes the case for an indictment and the jurors vote.

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But the grand jury in the Wilson case met for an extraordinarily long session, hearing what the prosecutor said was “absolutely everything” that could be considered testimony or evidence in the case. While what happens in the grand jury room is almost always kept secret, McCulloch insisted on making the transcripts of the proceedings available to the public immediately after the session concluded. Unlike most defendants, Wilson testified before the grand jury.

The grand jurors in the Wilson case met in a St. Louis County courthouse on 25 separate days. They heard 70 hours of testimony from roughly 60 witnesses. And they confronted a jumble of forensics reports, police radio logs, medical documents and tapes of FBI interviews with bystanders.

After three months of hearing evidence, the grand jury began its deliberations last Friday at 3:04 p.m. By midday Monday, they were finished.

Though the encounter between Wilson and Brown took place in a matter of minutes, eyewitness testimony revealed an infinite array of subtle but crucial variations. Witness after witness took the stand to describe the same two minutes and agreeing on the broadest strokes: how it began with the struggle at the window and the first shots, and ended with Dorian Johnson, who had been walking with Brown, shouting “they killed him” and crowds descending on the scene.

Many witnesses first began to pay attention while the two were wrestling at the car window, though they often said they could not see enough to know what was going on. But even when the confrontation broke out into the open, the accounts diverged.

“I see the officer running behind shooting,” said one witness.

“When he gets out the car he immediately starts to shoot,” said another.

“Let me stop you,” still another said. “He did not take off running after Michael.”

Testimony about the critical final moments — when Brown stopped running, turned and moved back toward Wilson — lay along a spectrum.

Some hewed closer to Wilson’s recollection.

“I could say for sure he never put his hands up,” said one witness, a man who was working in the area and did not live there, and whose recollection most strongly bolstered Wilson’s case. “He ran to the officer full charge.”

Others spoke just as confidently that events unfolded in a completely different way.

“Yes I personally saw him on his knees with his hands in the air,” one witness said in a recorded interview with federal officials that was played for the grand jury before he testified.

The prosecutor questioning that witness did not hide her skepticism of his story, highlighting contradictions in his various accounts.

“Basically just about everything that you said on Aug. 13, and much of what you said today isn’t consistent with the physical evidence that we have in this case, OK,” she said to him.

Prosecutors did not seem to shy away from pointing out discrepancies between multiple interviews of a single witness, or even at some points exploring the past criminal history of some witnesses, including Johnson, Brown’s friend. Several witnesses were asked if they felt pressure to conform to a certain storyline, or if they felt fear if their recollections differed from the popular narrative. Some did acknowledge such fears, with one talking of losing 15 pounds from stress.

An older man in the nearby housing complex was blunt about what he saw happening.

“You have to understand the mentality of some of these young guys,” he said, describing those who flocked to the scene in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. “They have nothing to do. If they can latch onto something, they embellish it because they want something to do.”

That man dismissed the notion that Brown had raised his hands to the sky in a gesture that turned into a symbol for the protest movement in Ferguson. He was also adamant, however, that Brown had never charged at Wilson but had staggered, wounded, his arms outstretched in a gesture of surrender.

“He had his hands up, palm facing the officer like, ‘OK, you got me,’” the man recalled, adding at a later point that he himself had once been shot so he knew what it was like.

The prosecutor pointed out that the distance Brown covered after turning was farther than the witness remembered, and a grand juror questioned whether he could really judge how menacing Brown appeared to Wilson.

Still, this man’s testimony was like that of several others, in that it neither matched up perfectly with Wilson’s account nor with the accounts of those most sympathetic to Brown. Many witnesses expressed puzzlement at the moment when Brown stopped and turned — “That is something I wrestle with to this day,” one said. Some recalled shouting out to him at that moment or turning to their family members in horror. When Brown moved toward Wilson, one witness said, he “just went forward like his body was just going down.”

As the weeks went by, the grand jury studied the brief encounter between Wilson and Brown from seemingly every possible angle, hearing forensic testimony on one day, on another going as a group to examine a police vehicle similar to Wilson’s. On Nov. 11, the prosecutors questioned a former superior of Wilson’s in another police force, asking about his relationship with the African-American community as well as the standard police practices governing the use of deadly force. (The witness had nothing but positive things to say about Wilson).

Much of the forensic evidence, along with public and private autopsy reports, supported the narrative that Wilson and Brown had struggled inside the police car.

A crime scene investigator described swabbing Wilson’s gun with a Q-tip; the subsequent DNA report found Brown’s genetic material on Wilson’s SIG Sauer pistol. Similarly, DNA from Brown was also found on the officer’s uniform pants and shirt.

In his own testimony, Wilson told jurors that Brown had grabbed the gun while the two scuffled at the car. The gun went off twice, once striking Brown in the hand and leaving blood splattered inside the vehicle.

The medical examiner who performed the initial autopsy showed the grand jury close to 100 gruesome photos of the wounds from every angle, giving exhaustive descriptions and lessons in the physics of gunshot wounds.

He described the soot, or unburned gunpowder, on a graze wound on Brown’s hand, proof that it was shot at a range of 6 to 9 inches.

Over the months, the grand jurors seemed to focus intently on the final movement Brown may have made toward Wilson. The prosecutor asked witness after witness if it looked as if Brown were reaching for a weapon, though few said they saw anything like that.

Grand jurors asked if Brown, when he was moving toward Wilson, seemed to have “any kind of expression, a blank look, aggressive look or anything.” They also had seemingly come to memorize the distances and challenged witnesses on their memories of the geography of the confrontation.

Forensic evidence was also presented that supported Wilson’s statement that Brown was moving toward him as he opened fire outside the car, and continued to approach the officer after being hit by an initial volley of bullets.

The distance from the front wheel of the officer’s SUV to Brown’s body was 153 feet and 9 inches, an investigator said. Farther away from the car, the investigator showed with photographs, were two blood-spatter patterns — evidence showing that Brown was moving toward the officer, and the car, when he was killed in the second flurry of shots.

The medical examiner described the succession of bullet wounds to the chest and face that, in his view, would not have immediately incapacitated Brown. The prosecutors repeatedly questioned the doctor about this, driving home that Brown could have still been mobile after the initial several shots.

They seemed intent on emphasizing this point, which supports Wilson’s description of Brown lunging toward him despite serious wounds.

A final shot through the top of Brown’s head, the medical experts all agreed, brought him down almost instantly.

After the shooting, Wilson was taken to an area hospital, where a doctor found that he had a “facial contusion,” the medical term for a bruise. He was given a prescription for an anti-inflammatory drug.

Because they were not sequestered the way trial juries sometimes are, the grand jurors were also aware of the outside pressure to reach a decision.

“I know Mr. McCulloch before has said there is a process and this is the process we have to follow,” one juror said in late September. “Is the NAACP, or these other, you know, coalitions, are they confirming what he is saying to the people of Ferguson?”

Last Friday afternoon, the jurors indicated that they were ready to begin deliberating. The two assistant St. Louis County prosecutors who had presented the case gave them information on the charges that they could possibly bring against Wilson: murder, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.

“We were trying to give you a balanced presentation of the evidence,” said Sheila Whirley, one of the prosecutors, according to the transcripts. “So you might see us go back and forth because we were trying to keep it balanced for you, and get to the truth and hopefully that was accomplished. And I think you are going to make the right decision.”

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