Last week, details continued to emerge surrounding the grand jury presentation of evidence against police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri this past August. Tensions have remained high, and with new leaks of details about the case from the media, there is a growing sense that this grand jury may not provide the pathway to justice that many had hoped.
The most alarming leak was the St. Louis Post Dispatch’s release of informaton from Michael Brown’s official autopsy. It is highly unusual and equally problematic to have the media release such sensitive information in the midst of an attempt to obtain a criminal indictment against Brown’s killer. There are a number of places where the breakdown in securing this information may have occurred, the Medical Examiner’s office, the Police Department, or the prosecutor’s office, but now that it’s out, ascertaining the leak’s source is a secondary matter to dealing with the information the leak itself presents (for those of you who may be wondering, the press is protected by law from having to reveal its sources and, in many ways, is just doing its job; they WANT leaks and juicy information because, well, that’s what helps them sell newspapers).
We already knew that Brown had been shot multiple times, likely from different distances, and with multiple bullet exit wounds. This information was not new and is as useful to the lawyer who is arguing their version of the facts. On one hand, a skilled attorney might successfully argue that the difference in distance of Wilson’s shots suggests that Wilson had the time and ability to engage Brown using non-lethal force. It is plausible the case can be made that the apparent variation of distance with respect to the shots (all based on the residue discovered on various parts of Brown’s person) is support that Wilson had a variety of options available to subdue any perceived before the use of his firearm became necessary. On the other hand, a skilled defense attorney could easily argue that the closer shots do more to corroborate details of Wilson’s alleged account where he and Brown were engaged in a close-proximity confrontation after Brown reportedly pushed Wilson back into his patrol vehicle using the car door. It’s impossible to know how the grand jury will interpret the evidence in this regard.
The biggest problem with the autopsy leak is the revelation that Brown had traces of marijuana in his system. This will likely be a lynchpin in the defense’s strategy should this case ever make it to a trial. But, and this cannot be overstated, do not go for the head fake! While the use of marijuana is illegal in the state of Missouri, that bears almost zero relevance as to whether Wilson is guilty of having committed a crime in the killing of Michael Brown. First, Wilson wasn’t investigating any suspicion of drug use or possession when he confronted Brown. Second, while the act of smoking weed is illegal, having marijuana in one’s system (meaning, after the marijuana has already been finished) is not a crime. This is nothing more than a racially-motivated smear tactic intended to detract the public’s attention away from the facts: a White police officer shot and killed an unarmed Black teen in broad daylight and has yet to be indicted for any crime whatsoever.
The court of public opinion definitely matters. For as much as the new information regarding marijuana in Brown’s system may seem to bear relevance on Wilson’s indictment it, it ultimately does not–and it shouldn’t. Any arguments that THC could have made Brown more aggressive or less aware of his actions, or somehow speak to Brown’s disregard for the law are all specious. The fact is, this is a red herring directly intended to cloud Brown’s image and thereby his innocence. By allowing this information to surface, local media has helped in the characterization of Brown as a Black weed smoking teenage thug. As I have written in this space on earlier occasions, we have seen this movie before. Remember when details emerged about Trayvon Martin’s alleged use of marijuana as the case against George Zimmerman began to build? It’s a head fake. Keep your eyes on the ball. Sidenote: I wonder how many folks at #pumpkinfest had weed in their systems? But, I digress.
News of the Justice Department’s involvement in Ferguson was met with approval from most who have been following the story. Even as the local prosecutor refused to relinquish jurisdiction over the case for the purposes of indicting Wilson in front of a grand jury, the prevailing sense was that DOJ would provide a fair and unbiased party to ensure the overall integrity of the process. At this point, however, it doesn’t appear that the DOJ’s presence is having any bearing on a grand jury presentation that seems to be going poorly for the prosecution.
While the media’s attempts at smearing the image of Mike Brown are indeed questionable, even more deplorable are the numbers within the Black community who are now second-guessing their thoughts on the situation. People smoke weed–and do far worse–daily. That, however, does not mean that they should be automatically subjected to the use of excessive force by law enforcement. This sort of thing only happens to us and we cannot be the ones to keep quiet and allow others to control the narrative surrounding Mike Brown. If we do, we run the risk of the story evolving into Wilson as the hero cop who defended himself against a young, violent, thug. Sound farfetched? Not hardly.
Keep your eyes on the ball and don’t go for the head fake.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a former King’s County (Brooklyn), NY prosecutor and Federal Civil Rights trial attorney. Follow him on Twitter @CFColemanJr.