CLAYTON — St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell on Thursday finally answered the question that has followed him since his political campaign: Will he charge a former Ferguson police officer in the 2014 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown?
The answer: No.
“This is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do as an elected official,” Bell said at a news conference Thursday. “Although this case represents one of the most significant moments in St. Louis’ history, the question to this office is a simple one: Could we prove beyond a reasonable doubt that when Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown he committed murder or manslaughter under Missouri law? After an independent and in-depth review of the evidence, we cannot prove that he did.”
The significance of the case and requests from Michael Brown’s family prompted Bell’s office to quietly reopen an investigation about five months ago, but the office did not have enough evidence to disprove a self-defense claim in trial, Bell said.
His comments first appeared in an exclusive interview with Post-Dispatch metro columnist Tony Messenger.
Wilson, a white officer, shot and killed Brown on Aug. 9, 2014, in the middle of a street inside the busy Canfield Green apartment complex. The Black teenager’s body lay in the street for more than four hours, igniting outrage across the country and day after day of angry, sometimes violent protests in Ferguson.
The 2014 shooting prompted months of protests here and across the country.
Bell’s announcement comes amid an ongoing coronavirus pandemic and waning protests over the May death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. It also comes one week before the six-year anniversary of Brown’s death, and a few days before major primary elections in St. Louis County and elsewhere.
The timing of Thursday’s announcement was tied only to concluding the investigation and quickly informing Brown’s family of the decision, Bell said.
Bell added that his decision does not exonerate Wilson, whose lawyer could not be reached Thursday.
“There is (sic) so many points in which Darren Wilson could have handled the situation differently, and if he had, Michael Brown might still be alive,” he said Thursday. “But that is not the question before us.”
Bell’s predecessor, Robert McCulloch, reviewed the evidence in the shooting and convened a grand jury. The jury ultimately declined to indict Wilson, reigniting widespread protests.
Bell’s stunning win in the 2018 Democratic primary for St. Louis County prosecutor was among the biggest changes in the aftermath of Brown’s death. Critics of McCulloch consistently said they did not trust the grand jury process under him.
Last year, on the five-year anniversary of Brown’s death, Brown’s family demanded Bell’s office reinvestigate the killing that rocked St. Louis and launched national conversations about race and policing.
Until Thursday, Bell had dodged questions about whether his office would reopen the case.
Just a few people in Bell’s office were aware the investigation had been reopened, Bell said, in an effort to protect it and shield it from outside influence, Bell said.
“We didn’t want to create a circus if we announced that we were looking at it,” he said.
Bell said the investigation concluded a few weeks ago, and he met with Brown’s parents, Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden, on Thursday before the public announcement.
“I know this is not the result that they were looking for and that their pain will continue forever,” he said.
Bell’s investigators had no contact with Wilson or his attorneys through the investigation, which was led by lawyer Dana Mulhauser, a former U.S. Department of Justice trial attorney hired last year as chief of the office’s Conviction and Incident Review Unit.
Bell said Thursday his office has no plans to publicly release a report detailing conclusions of the investigation.
Wilson resigned from the police department in November 2014.
A few months later, the Justice Department concluded Wilson was justifiably afraid of Brown and could not be prosecuted federally. The Justice Department also said in one of two lengthy reports that Ferguson unfairly targeted and bolstered its budget on the backs of impoverished minorities.
Bell shared a list Thursday of changes his office has made since he took charge in January 2019 in response to issues raised in the Ferguson movement.
He pointed to a new independent unit tasked with investigating police use of force and exonerations, new victim support practices and diversion programs for low-level crimes. Bell also announced Thursday that all homicide grand jury proceedings will be recorded once they resume after current pandemic delays.
“I don’t know how this region is ever going to heal fully from the significance of this case,” Bell said. “But I believe it is time to try to move on.”
Toward the end of Bell’s announcement Thursday, activist Tory Russell, 36, wearing a T-shirt that said “Wesley Bell doesn’t care about Black people” berated Bell for the decision, calling his office corrupt for hiring “dirty cops” and telling him he wouldn’t get reelected.
“We got Bob McCulloch out only to replace him with the Black Bob McCulloch,” Russell, who is Black, said in an interview after the announcement. “He just dresses nicer. He’s Black. That’s it. That’s what we got. That’s all it is, is injustice. All it is is injustice dressed up in Blackface.”
In a joint statement late Thursday, more than a dozen area social justice and civil rights groups — including Forward Through Ferguson, ArchCity Defenders and Metropolitan Congregations United — said Bell’s decision “unearthed painful memories and reopened still-unhealed wounds.”
”Today, our hearts go out to the family of Michael Brown Jr.,” the statement reads. “We stand in solidarity with Lezley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., who are just days away from six years without their beloved child. We hope that they will be enveloped by a community of love and support to face yet another moment of heartbreak and disappointment.“
A few dozen activists and Ferguson residents gathered Thursday night at the same apartment complex where Brown was killed. A small memorial was built to commemorate Brown, including a teddy bear surrounded by roses.
About 30 demonstrators then went to Ferguson Market and Liquor, where Brown shoved a store clerk prior to his fatal interaction with Wilson. The store has been the scene of several protests in the years since Brown’s death, as protesters said the store’s surveillance video mischaracterized Brown and the store should have done more to say so.
Demonstrators on Thursday called for a boycott of the store, and as would-be customers approached, protesters told them the store was closed.
Brown's mother could not be reached for comment. Brown Sr., the father of the younger Brown, came to the market and spoke with protesters late Thursday. He declined comment to the Post-Dispatch.
Jeremy Kohler, Erin Heffernan, Robert Patrick and Robert Cohen of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
Updated at 11 p.m. Thursday with more information
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