Trending Topics

Report: Justice Dept. Unlikely to Bring Civil Rights Charges Against Wilson in Ferguson

After a steady stream of leaked information from the grand jury in St. Louis appeared to point to police officer Darren Wilson walking free after killing Michael Brown, now a report in the Washington Post is claiming that the federal Justice Department has decided there isn’t enough evidence to bring civil rights charges against Wilson.

If it is true, the combination of no indictment and no civil rights charges is bound to be received in Ferguson with tremendous anger and frustration, considering that a preponderance of witnesses claimed that they saw Wilson shoot an unarmed Brown multiple times with his hands up in surrender. It is likely once again to raise the question of how difficult it is for African Americans to find a satisfactory result from the American criminal justice system.

While experts have always said an effective prosecutor can easily get an indictment from a grand jury if the prosecutor so desires—raising the crucial question of whether St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch really wants an indictment of Wilson—the bar in federal civil rights cases is much higher. Prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer intended to violate someone’s constitutional rights, meaning they must delve into the officer’s mindset.

The wording in the federal statute says it is a crime for a person with government authority to “willfully deprive a person of a right or privilege protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”
A source who was familiar with the federal investigation told reporters from the Washington Post that “the evidence at this point does not support civil rights charges against Officer Wilson.”
“There is an extra burden in federal civil rights cases because the statute requires that the defendant acted ‘willfully,’ ” said Rachel A. Harmon, a law professor at the University of Virginia and a former prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “It is not enough to prove that he used too much force. You have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did so willfully.”

David Klinger, a former Los Angeles police officer and now a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, told the Post that the disagreements about what happened between Wilson and Brown have created a situation where reasonable doubt is swirling around the case, thus making a successful civil rights prosecution almost impossible.

“The autopsy report is devastating because it raises doubts about him standing still with his hands in the air in surrender,” Klinger, who fatally shot a suspect in the line of duty when he was an officer, told the Post. “If you have a halfway competent lawyer, the defense could raise reasonable doubt with this.”

It is common to have a situation “that looks like a constitutional violation and may well be an injustice,” Bagenstos said. “But sometimes the Justice Department does not have the ability to bring a civil rights case under the statutes it enforces,” said Samuel Bagenstos, a former Justice Department principal deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights and now a law professor at the University of Michigan.

Even if there are no charged filed against Wilson, the federal investigation still could lead to broad reforms of the Ferguson Police Department. As the Post pointed out, in the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Justice Department just announced reforms intended to overhaul the way its police department uses force after conducting a civil rights investigation.

It’s pretty clear that the need for wholesale change in that department is appropriate,” Attorney General Eric Holder said this week.


Back to top