The Civil Rights of Officer Wilson

A year after being accused of violating Michael Brown’s civil rights, Officer Darren Wilson, late of the justly excoriated Ferguson Police Department, has yet to recover his. Those rights include a presumption of innocence denied even after a Justice Department investigation affirmatively exonerated him, compiling reams of physical evidence and witness accounts consistent with his account of events.

That evidence conclusively disproved the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative that—within minutes of the event, the DOJ report said—took flight on wings of since discredited testimony. The investigation also established that Brown attempted to seize Wilson’s gun.

Yet the best The Washington Post, reporting on the anniversary of the shooting, could say for Wilson was that he “fatally shot” a young man who was “black and unarmed” and that “[a] grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice declined to prosecute” him.

The New York Times similarly offered the hazy account that DOJ said the “shooting did not warrant criminal charges.”

Neither could bring itself to explain why charges were unwarranted, which is that Wilson was actually exonerated, nor do any of the media reports on the anniversary appear to have debunked, as the investigation did—using both ballistics and eyewitness accounts—the persistent “hands up, don’t shoot” myth according to which Brown was shot, execution-style in the act of surrender.

One reason for this is the Justice Department’s shameful decision simultaneously to release its exoneration of Wilson and its indictment of the Ferguson Police Department, thus denying Wilson even a 24-hour news cycle worth of absolution without an asterisk attached—this after he was subjected to repeated calls for a vindictive prosecution whose explicit purpose was not to do justice but, in a dangerous inversion, to sate the community’s supposed “right” to vengeance.

This gave the media—which, having perpetrated the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative, was deeply invested in it—an easy out for its stories the next day and beyond: Wilson wasn’t charged, but his department was racist.

That “but” needs to be changed to an “and,” the stories should have been separated, and the fact that Wilson was not charged deserves the contextualizing fact that virtually every scintilla of evidence in the report supported him and every scrap accusing him was discredited.

In all this, the ACLU, too—which, whatever one thinks of it, once boasted the virtue of consistency, taking on cases unpopular on both the left and right—utterly caved, demanding the Justice Department investigation of the shooting and then all but ignoring its results.

When news of DOJ’s two reports leaked, an ACLU blog post linking to a story about both investigations was totally silent on the clearing of Wilson, mentioning the officer only to link him with an accusation of racism against the Ferguson Police Department and to say he “shot the unarmed teenager down in the street.”

The ACLU is of course correct to note the undeniable problem of police bias against African-Americans. The Ferguson Police Department, especially the paramilitary response to the protests last August, illustrates it. Moreover, that Michael Brown’s shooting was defensible does not make it less of a tragedy.

But Darren Wilson did not surrender his civil rights when he was accused, falsely, repeatedly and publicly, of depriving Michael Brown of his. He will probably not work again in the profession to which he climbed from a troubled upbringing. When his wife went into labor with their daughter, she had—thanks to death threats against the family, including the unborn child—to register at the hospital under a false identity. Wilson cannot put his name on the deed of his house.

All this has occurred because an innocent man was dragged before a bar of vengeful public opinion and convicted without any process, much less the process due him. It is the kind of case, implicating the most essential civil liberties, that used to be tailor-made for the ACLU.