The United States Department of Justice has released a prosecution memo explaining how it decided not to bring federal charges against Ferguson Police Department Officer Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown.
The report is 86 pages long, with 28 footnotes. The report's summary of relevant federal law — what charges are available, what it would have to prove to convict Officer Wilson, and the landscape of use-of-force law — appears correct. I can't evaluate whether the Department has misrepresented what witnesses said or the circumstances of their statements, but the report's evaluation of the credibility of witnesses is convincing: it is based on inconsistencies in statements, inconsistencies with scientific analysis of physical evidence, and other factors that I would use as a defense attorney to attack a prosecution witness. The Department's conclusion that it can't prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is likely correct. Its conclusion that there is no credible evidence supporting prosecution, because there is no credible evidence contradicting Officer Wilson's account, is arguable.
Were I still a federal prosecutor, I wouldn't recommend prosecuting the case, and were I Wilson's defense lawyer, I would like my chances much better than the prosecution's chances. I don't disagree with the factual or legal analysis. But I find it remarkable, both as a former prosecutor and as someone who has practiced criminal defense for 15 years.
I find it remarkable because most potential prosecutions don't get this sort of analysis. Most investigations don't involve rigorous examination of the credibility of the prosecution's witnesses. Most investigations don't involve painstaking consideration of the defendant's potential defenses. Often investigators don't even talk to potential defense witnesses, and if they do, don't follow up on leads they offer. Most investigations don't carefully weigh potentially incriminating and potentially exculpatory scientific evidence. If an explanation of the flaws in a case requires footnotes, you shouldn't expect it to deter prosecution.
Instead, I'm more used to the prosecution assuming their witnesses are truthful, even if they are proven liars. I'm more used to contrary evidence being cynically disregarded. I'm more used to participants in the system stubbornly presuming guilt to the bitter end. I'm more used to prosecutors disregarding potentially exculpatory evidence that they think isn't "material." I'm more used to the criminal justice system ignoring exculpatory science and clinging to inculpatory junk science like an anti-vaxxer.
Why is this case different? It's different because Darren Wilson is a cop. Cops get special rights and privileges and breaks the rest of us don't. Cops get an extremely generous and lenient benefit of the doubt from juries. Nearly every segment of the criminal justice system operates to treat cops more favorably than the rest of us.
The Department of Justice report didn't say "we can't prove this beyond a reasonable doubt, particularly because juries defer to cops." It didn't need to. It's understood. The Department of Justice also didn't have to worry about being called out for inconsistent approaches to other reports. That's because when you're a black guy who shoots a white law enforcement officer in self-defense, they don't write an 86-page memo with 28 footnotes about it. They just prosecute you.
It's not unjust that Darren Wilson gets the benefit of the doubt. It's unjust that nearly everyone else doesn't.
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