Witness 10 proves Darren Wilson had a reasonable belief he needed to shoot Michael Brown
By Paul Cassell December 1 at 2:57 AM
Missouri law allows a person to use deadly force defending himself when he has a “reasonable belief” he needs to use deadly force. The law goes on to define a reasonable belief as one based on “grounds that could lead a reasonable person in the same situation to the same belief.” Unsurprisingly, Officer Darren Wilson testified to the grand jury that he reasonably believed he needed to use deadly force to defend himself against Michael Brown. But the clinching argument on this point is that other reasonable people — i.e., some credible eyewitnesses — agreed with Wilson.
In previous posts, I have discussed how the grand jury process was fair, how Officer Wilson’s testimony covered the bases of Missouri self-defense law, and how the physical evidence bolstered his credibility. In this post, I turn to eyewitness testimony — which the Post has helpfully collected in this story. It would be difficult to discuss in detail the testimony of all of several dozen eyewitnesses. But a defendant raising self-defense need not show that his interpretation was the only one; rather he need only show that it was a reasonable one — i.e., a conclusion a reasonable person could reach based on all the facts.
Against that backdrop, I want to review in detail the testimony of one seemingly reasonable and neutral observer — Witness Number 10. If his objective assessment was that Officer Wilson acted appropriately, that would be strong evidence demonstrating Wilson’s belief was reasonable.
Witness 10 told the grand jury that he was outside while working a job on Canfield Drive when two men (later identified as Mike Brown and Dorion Johnson) walked by him. He then was able to see the events in question with a direct line of sight. Witness 10 saw the struggle in Wilson’s police car — with Brown confronting Wilson inside the car:
I just see Mr. Brown inside the police officer’s window. It appeared as [though] some sort of confrontation was taking place. . . . [T]hat took place for seconds, I’m not sure how long. . . . And one shot, the first shot was let loose and after the first shot, Mike Brown came out of the window and took off running. So my initial thought was that wow, did I just witness this young guy kill a police officer (grand jury testimony, Vol. 6, page 165, line 23, hereafter cited by just page and line number).
Witness 10 elaborated about Brown’s position: “Half of his body, his feet was still planted on the ground, his upper body was inside the window in a leaning motion inside the window, his upper body was inside” (169:21). And while the witness could not hear what was being said inside the car, “it just looked out of the norm with somebody being leaned over inside the police officer’s car” (171:15). Witness 10 then explained that, after the firing of a shot, Michael Brown and his friend took off down Canfield Drive. Officer Wilson remained in his car briefly, and then pursued with his gun drawn — but not firing at Brown (177:15). Eventually Brown stopped.
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According to Witness 10, Brown then turned and ran “full charge” toward Wilson:
He [Mike Brown] stopped. He did turn, he did some sort of body gesture, I’m not sure what it was, but I know it was a body gesture. And I could say for sure he never put his hands up after he did his body gesture, he ran towards the officer full charge. The officer fired several shots at him and to give an estimate, I would say roughly around five to six shots was fired at Mike Brown. Mike Brown was still coming towards the office and at this point I’m thinking, wow, is this officer missing Mike Brown at this close of a range. Mike Brown continuously came forward in the charging motion and at some point, at one point he started to slow down and he came to a stop. And when he stopped, that’s when the officer ceased fire and when he ceased fire, Mike Brown started to charge once more at him. When he charged once more, the officer returned fire with, I would say, give an estimate of three to four shots. And that’s when Mike Brown finally collapsed . . . . (166:21-167:18).
With regard to the body gesture, Witness 10 explained: “All I know is it was not in a surrendering motion of I’m surrendering, putting my hands up or anything, I’m not sure. If it was like a shoulder shrug or him pulling his pants up, I’m not sure. I really don’t want to speculate [about] things . . . .” (180:5). But “[i]mmediately after he [Brown] did his body gesture, he comes for force, full charge at the officer” (180:16). Ultimately, in the view of Witness 10, the officer’s life was in jeopardy when Brown charged him from close range (206:4).
Under Missouri law, this testimony by itself (even apart from any other evidence) would have provided a sound basis for the grand jury to decline to return any charges against Wilson. A Missouri appellate decision approves the following jury instruction allowing deadly force when supported by a “reasonable belief” in the need to use such force:
In order for a person lawfully to use force in self-defense, he must reasonably believe he is in imminent danger of harm from the other person. He need not be in actual danger but he must have a reasonable belief that he is in such danger. . . . But a person is not permitted to use deadly force, that is, force that he knows will create a substantial risk of causing death or serious physical injury, unless he reasonably believes he is in imminent danger of death or serious physical injury. And, even then, a person may use deadly force only if he reasonably believes the use of such force is necessary to protect himself.
Of particular importance for this post, Missouri law defines a “reasonable belief” as one that would be held by a reasonable person knowing the same facts:
As used in this instruction, the term “reasonable belief” means a belief based on reasonable grounds, that is, grounds that could lead a reasonable person in the same situation to the same belief. This depends upon how the facts reasonably appeared. It does not depend upon whether the belief turned out to be true or false.
Witness 10 was a neutral observer who saw all the same things that Officer Wilson saw (albeit from a safe distance). He concluded that Wilson’s life was in jeopardy. This would seem to be very strong evidence that a reasonable person could reasonably conclude that deadly force was required to protect against 300-pound Mike Brown’s “full on charge.”
Moreover, Witness 10′s version of the facts is quite credible. Witness 10 saw a “confrontation” and Mike Brown’s DNA was later found inside the car. Indeed, witness 10 was afraid that Brown might have killed the police officer inside the car when he heard the firing of a single shot. (The ballistics evidence shows two shots were fired at the car, so that is a point of difference.) Witness 10 then describes Wilson pursuing Brown but not firing any shots along the way. Here again, the ballistics tracks this testimony.