CLAYTON • As a child, Michael Brown was never found delinquent of the juvenile equivalents of Missouri’s most serious felony charges and was not facing any at the time he died, a court official said Wednesday.
The Post-Dispatch filed a petition Aug. 22 asking a judge in the St. Louis County Family Court to open any juvenile records on Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old shot to death last month by a Ferguson police officer. A conservative blogger from California had separately requested the records be opened.
Police had said earlier that Brown had no adult criminal record.
The petitions went to a hearing Tuesday with St. Louis County Family Court Judge Ellen Levy Siwak, who took the case under advisement.
But disclosures during and after the hearing on Tuesday put to rest claims by blogger Charles C. Johnson and others that Brown was facing a murder charge at the time he was shot to death.
Cynthia Harcourt, a lawyer for St. Louis County Juvenile Officer Kip Seely, noted that some juvenile records and proceedings are open to the public: those that concern crimes that would be Class A or B felonies if a juvenile had been charged as an adult. But there were none for Brown.
After the hearing, the Post-Dispatch sought out Harcourt to clarify her statement. She told the Post-Dispatch that Brown was not facing any Class A or B charges when he died, either.
Class A felonies include second-degree murder and first-degree robbery; the penalties in adult court range from 10 years in prison to death. Class B felonies include voluntary manslaughter, second-degree robbery and first-degree burglary, with a maximum penalty of five to 15 years.
It is not known whether Brown had ever been accused of lesser offenses. Class C felonies, for example, which include involuntary manslaughter and second-degree assault, would become open only if there were two previous adjudications for class A, B or C felonies. That was not the case with Brown.
Joseph Martineau of Lewis Rice & Fingersh, attorney for the Post-Dispatch, acknowledged to Siwak that some juvenile court records are confidential under Missouri law.
But he argued that the primary reason to keep them confidential — to protect a child from entering adulthood with the stigma of a criminal record — expired with Brown’s death. He said Siwak had the discretion to open files, and said there was heavy public interest in the details of Brown’s life.
Martineau pointed to a general lack of transparency surrounding the police response to, and investigation of, the shooting. He said opening the juvenile files would “dispel speculation that occurs when proceedings are not open.”
Harcourt derided the claim as pure media curiosity that should not lead the judge to open any confidential records. She said if there were records of felonies, they would have been made public.
She acknowledged that Siwak could open files further but implored her not to, saying the integrity of the family court was on the line. And she said the court of public opinion weighing facts in the Brown case did not require the release of confidential records.
The parents of Michael Brown were represented at the hearing by their attorney, Anthony Gray. Although he did not speak in the hearing, outside the courtroom he blasted the Post-Dispatch and Johnson for requesting the juvenile files.
There was one reason, and one only, the organizations wanted to view the files, he said: “The character assassination of Mike Brown.”
Post-Dispatch editor Gilbert Bailon disputed the idea that seeking any juvenile records was designed to impugn Michael Brown.
“We are a news organization that pursues facts, which are the basis of coverage. Innuendo and speculation through various forms of media have raised questions about whether Michael Brown had a criminal record. We are seeking to find those facts without prejudgment or bias.”
“It is ironic that today’s new information appears favorable to Michael Brown by stating he had no record of adult or serious juvenile crimes, yet some have characterized the pursuit of that information as damaging to Michael Brown,” Bailon said.