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Justice, Truth, and Ferguson

In this piece Nathan Palmer suggests that the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown illustrates how reality is socially negotiated.

“The duty of the grand jury is to separate fact and fiction,” St. Louis County prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch said last night in a statement. “No probable cause exists to file any charges against Darren Wilson.”

What does it mean to separate fact from fiction? At first, this question might seem ridiculously simple. It means you have to decide who is lying and who is telling the truth. It means that you have to decide if the available scientific evidence supports or challenges competing accounts of what happened that day. Any reasonable person should be able to do that, right? In the abstract this seems really easy, but in reality it is anything but.

What Happened on August 9th?

Ninety seconds. In the Ferguson case, that is the primary thing that is in dispute. Only 90 seconds passed between the moment Officer Wilson confronted Mr. Brown and the moment that back up arrived.

Wilson’s account is that he approached Mr. Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson to ask them to stop walking in the middle of the street. Wilson told the grand jury that he noticed cigarillos in Brown’s hand which potentially tied Brown to a recent report of a convenience store robbery in the area. Officer Wilson testified that he then ordered Mr. Brown to get back as he tried to get out of his police SUV. Before he could exit the vehicle Wilson says Mr. Brown pushed his door closed and started assaulting him through the window. Wilson says he then puled out his firearm and while he and Brown wrestled for control of the gun it went off injuring Mr. Brown’s hand.

Wilson says that Brown backed away from the vehicle, raised his hands in the air in what he perceived to be a menacing posture. Officer Wilson said he thought Mr. Brown, “looked like a demon.” He reports that Mr. Brown hit him again before Officer Wilson could fire two more shots at Mr. Brown. Then Mr. Brown ran and Officer Wilson pursued him on foot. Once he caught up with Mr. Brown, Officer Wilson testified that Mr. Brown turned around and charged at him. Officer Wilson then fatally shot Mr. Brown.

That is Officer Wilson’s account of what transpired, but it is not the only account of what happened. Dorian Johnson, the friend Mr. Brown was with at the time of the shooting, testified that Officer Wilson was the aggressor. Mr. Johnson says that Officer Wilson drove by and told them to get out of the street and move to the sidewalk. Wilson drove off, but quickly turned around when the two did not comply with his orders. Wilson confronted the two again and Mr. Johnson says that Wilson grabbed Brown by the neck and as Brown tried to pull away he threatened to shoot. Shots were fired and Mr. Johnson says Brown fled. Mr. Johnson testified that Brown raised his hands in what he thought was an attempt to surrender before Wilson shot and killed him.

In addition to these two accounts, the grand jury heard from nearly 60 witnesses over three months of testimony. These witnesses recounted the events of August 9th differently. Some eye witnesses say that Officer Wilson ran after Mr. Brown, others are adamant that he didn’t. Others said under oath that Wilson started firing the moment he got out of the car. Some said Mr. Brown was on his knees, while others say he was standing. Some say Mr. Brown had his hands in the air, others say he didn’t. Multiple witnesses gave testimony that supports aspects of Wilson’s account while at the same time contradicting other aspects of Wilson’s testimony.

Keep in mind that each of these witnesses were testifying under oath. If they were caught in a lie, they could be charged with perjury and face up to five years in prison. What then are we to make of the differences in these accounts? Is someone lying? If so, who and why?

But What About The Evidence?

Maybe we can’t trust witnesses. Maybe the answer is to rely on scientific evidence. That can’t lie, right?

Gun powder residue, D.N.A., autopsy results, blood splatter analysis, and the distribution of shell casings were all introduced as evidence in this grand jury hearing. All of this evidence suggests that the broad strokes of the case are accurate. Officer Wilson shot Mr. Brown at close range. Mr. Brown was facing Officer Wilson at the time he was shot. Blood stains on the ground suggest that Mr. Brown was moving forward when he was fatally shot.

But there are still many questions that the physical evidence can’t answer. Was Mr. Brown surrendering? Was Mr. Brown charging Officer Wilson or was he falling limp? Was Officer Wilson the aggressor in the altercation?

Reality is Socially Negotiated

If sociology has any core lesson to teach us, it is that reality is socially constructed. Individuals can experience the exact same event differently. Or to use prosecutor McCulloch’s language, what is “fact” to one person, is “fiction” to another. The fact that one witness can be certain something happened that another witness is certain didn’t happen, should make you question if it’s possible to be certain of anything witnesses observe.

Within the legal system, in the absence of certainty, the state “makes a case” as the saying goes. Investigators ask some questions and not others. They highlight some facts and downplay others. Some witnesses are taken at their word while other witnesses are heavily scrutinized. Some leads are followed, some are dismissed out of hand.

The state made their case and the grand jury chose to believe Darren Wilson’s version of the events. But this does not mean that Wilson was telling the objective truth.

The justice system is made up of human beings who suffer from biases and make mistakes. Justice, truth, and reality are socially negotiated and like all negotiations, those with the most power often get their way.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What are your thoughts and reactions to the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown?
  2. What do you think of the fact that many of the witnesses gave conflicting testimony?
  3. How do you think that race influenced this court case? Explain your answer in detail.
  4. After reading this essay, do you think it’s possible to “separate fact from fiction” and if so, how do you do it? If not, then what should we expect of our legal justice system?