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.

Reader Discussion

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on August 11, 2015 at 10:57:51 am

It is the kind of case, implicating the most essential civil liberties, that used to be tailor-made for the ACLU.

1. Huh? People who have been wrongly accused have an essential civil liberty interest in having private firms publicly vindicate them? And the ACLU has historically been involved in this kind of public relations campaign?

Examples, please?

Sure, Darren Wilson became a symbol of a societal problem; a “lighting rod.” I regret this dynamic, as I’ve recently discussed in the context of Brian Trooper, the Texas cop who arrested Sandra Bland, a black motorist who later seems to have committed suicide in jail. [1] [2] Moral panic is a bitch.

But moral panic is hardly unique to Darren Wilson, or to police officers.

And I’m baffled at the suggestion that the ACLU has some specialty in managing moral panic. If anything, their specialty has been extending legal defenses in the face of public opprobrium. For example, the ACLU insisted that Tsarnaev, the guy accused (and now convicted) of the Boston Marathon bombings, receive his Miranda warnings. I’m not aware of any effort on the part of the ACLU to manage public opinion about Tsarnaev. They wanted him to receive the benefits of a legal presumption of innocence – not try to get the public to extend to him an actual presumption of innocence.

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on August 11, 2015 at 11:00:03 am

2. What does “exoneration” mean?

I use “exoneration” to mean that an accuser had a duty to provide evidence proving an accusation, and failed to provide sufficient evidence in a sufficiently timely or persuasive manner. The failure may result from the fact that evidence demonstrated that the accusation could not possibly be true – or merely that the trier of fact made a judgment call about a close factual question. That is, "exoneration" covers a lot of ground.

I’m leery of drawing conclusions based on a lack of evidence; lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. Thus, OJ Simpson was found not guilty of the crime of killing Nicole Brown Simpson; he was “exonerated.” Should I therefore conclude that he did NOT kill Nicole? Or merely that the state failed to convict him – and thus I should keep an open mind on the issue?

Here’s my take: Darren Wilson was accused of acting inappropriately in a manner that killed a black teenager. I see no shame in asking that the matter be investigated. The investigation found insufficient evidence to demonstrate that Wilson acted inappropriately. Thus, society has insufficient grounds to suspect that he did.
This is NOT the same as saying that Wilson did not act inappropriately. It merely means I have no basis to think that he did. But that leads to issue 3.

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on August 11, 2015 at 11:07:05 am

3. What duty does government owe people when government publicly accuses them of wrongdoing, but then cannot prove its claim?

Evidence demonstrates that people are prone to remember accusations about people even if the accusations are later demonstrated to be false. This may be especially pronounced when the accused is a private citizen about whom the public knows nothing other than the accusation. This stinks – yet it’s hard to imagine how to have a criminal justice system without having public accusations and evidentiary trials. (Ok, it’s not hard to think of how it could be done – but the cure would be worse than the disease.)

Arguably government should provide some kind of rehabilitation/compensation mechanism. Of course, then we’d be subject to the spectacle of OJ Simson and mafia dons becoming the beneficiaries of these mechanisms every time government fails to get a conviction.

Darran Wilson may provide a special case. Arguably his reputation was harmed by the social need to investigate the incident. But in addition, as Weiner observes, government released a report exonerating Weiner at the same time that it released a report condemning Ferguson. Why? Arguably to achieve a different social purpose: avoiding the riot that would inevitably have resulted if Wiener had been exonerated without blame being passed to anyone else. Thus, Wilson’s private interests in having a moment of public exoneration may have been sacrificed to achieve a public good. When private property is appropriated for a public purpose, the Fifth Amendment provides for compensation.

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on August 11, 2015 at 11:09:10 am

Whoops, let's make that Trooper Brian Encinia, not Brian Trooper.

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on August 11, 2015 at 11:22:02 am

February 19, 2015, I attended the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr.'s speech at Southern University. It was black-white divisive--black church and black theology; see paragraph eight in http://www.subr.edu/index.cfm/newsroom/detail/739 / . My work to understand what I heard that day led me to the Anthony B. Bradley's book, Liberating Black Theology, 2010.

From Bradley and many online sources, it seems to me perhaps as many as forty million Americans are misled by black liberation theology (BLT). One notion from it is that white Christianity not coming to the aid of black American slaves is evidence that the Christian god is black and intends black Americans to become supreme. Therefore, it makes no sense for a black American to brook the influence of a white person.

When I report my experience, the response is silence. However, the evidence of BLT's influence is all around us. I want to discuss it, because I too see it as Marxist. Jeremiah Wright urges young people to sacrifice their lives for a cause. And Wright is not alone. Google my essay Open Letter to Baton Rouge Leaders 8/5/15.

It is possible that the most powerful believer in BLT is President Obama; that would explain the injustice you cite.

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Phil Beaver
on August 11, 2015 at 12:15:17 pm

While I appreciate the defense of Officer Wilson, I find it remarkable that Weiner describes the Ferguson P.D. as "justly excoriated," and offers as support only the report by the Obama/Holder "Justice" Department. This is like basing conclusions about Israel's actions on a report by the UN Human Rights Council.

I'm sure that the Ferguson P.D. has faults, like any police department, but I wouldn't condemn it based on a screed prepared by credentialed ideologues seeking to distract attention from the fact federal government, the Democratic Party, national civil rights/civil liberties/public interest organizations, and the national media had just spent weeks propagating the myth that one powerless small town cop was a bloodthirsty racist killer and turning him into the symbol of all of America's real and imagined racial sins, past and present.

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on August 11, 2015 at 12:18:59 pm

Can you explain exactly what civil right of Officer Darren Wilson was violated? He might have a case against those that spread the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative if he can prove that it was a lie, but I think that is going to be very hard to prove to that level of certainty (as the burden would shift to him having to prove that their statement was a lie, which might be possible but extremely hard). The Washington Post and the New York Times did not violate his rights, they reported on what others claimed (maybe wrongly or lying), and they are under no legal obligation to "set the record straight." Wilson resigned his position, he was not fired, so that cannot be a violation of his rights. And if no one wants to hire him, that also isn't a violation of his rights, no one has a right to be hired for a job.

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Devin Watkins
on August 11, 2015 at 16:13:04 pm

" government released a report exonerating Weiner at the same time that it released a report condemning Ferguson. "

Surely, this is a typo - not a Freudian slip. Nobody really would think that now, right?

Ha! Just funnin' wit ya!

BTW: Again, you make clever use of words, re: exonerate. Yes, exoneration does not *necessarily* imply (or mean) innocence; however, in this case, as Greg shows Mr. Brown DID attempt to seize the policeman's weapon.
Surely, this would lead a reasonable reviewer to the conclusion that he was, in fact, innocent of the charges.

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on August 11, 2015 at 16:19:28 pm

Did he resign? or was he "encouraged" to resign; one could conclude that he was so encouraged, especially after the media published his home address and he began to receive *friendly* visits.

Now here is a case where nobody's conception of *exoneration* may be taken at face value.

" The Washington Post and the New York Times did not violate his rights, they reported on what others claimed (maybe wrongly or lying), and they are under no legal obligation to “set the record straight.”
Sure we can exonerate them - but can it not be reasonably argued that both papers pushed their own little narrative (gee, surprise) and that having access to the facts (Justice Dep't report, etc) they continued to press that narrative. One can say that they chose to save precious newsprint space on their pages by combining the stories - but the proper approach would have been to separate the stories. None of this rises to the level of litigable action - but....!!!!!!

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on August 12, 2015 at 09:17:48 am

I called the pastor of the church in Ferguson (which now has another name) which ordained me before its removal to that troubled city. The pastor is White, and he was called by the church which is 2/3rds Black Americans who were the main instigators of such a call. In any case, I was licensed and ordained long before the church even had any Black members. Interestingly enough would make radical changes in its racial makeup in the two decades following my departure to serve as a minister in other churches. I would go on to study Black history in my bachelor's program,, graduate from a Black University, study more Black History during my Master's program, write a prospectus for a doctoral dissertation in Black history at an Ivy League university while teaching at a predominantly Black university, and finally do my doctor of ministry on the subject, "Christian Love and Race Relations," in a liberal seminary without the support of the director of my project who declared: "You ought to have known better than to choose a controversial topic like that. If they fire you, I will be write there behind them, supporting them." I got the project done anyway, but not without some clashes with my director. In any case, the pastor told me that he knew the police officer, Darren Wilson, personally, and that he was a good man, that he had not drawn his weapon on any one during the six years or so that he had served there. Apparently, the trouble stemmed more from a criminal element coming in from the area in which I grew up, the Walnut Park area. I do feel the frustration and the anger of African Americans and other Black folks who suffer from poor education, bad home situations, and no jobs to stir hope. Even Whites are beginning to face some of the problems (some had all along, but now the problem is becoming systemic due to the developments of computers, automation, and robotics. Virtually all of us are now unemployable for that reason. And some leaders are beginning to speak about the threat of artificial intelligence (cf. Elon Musk, head of Tesla Motors). In any case, the unemployables along with many who are not unemployed are regarded as supernumeraries with hints being made for years that society needs to get rid of the excess population (does this explain abortion and same sex marriages?), vide the Georgia Guidestones and a plethora of other sources. In 1985 our 11 year old son attended a two week course at a school for bright kids where he worked with a computer, being mentored by a 20 year old Black college student. One day, when we picked him up from school, he said, "Mom, Dad, there was a strange question on that computer today. The question asked was: If you were an official in a world government and had an overpopulation problem with a country in Africa, how would you handle it? Have a war and kill them off? Use an infectious agent, germ or disease? Or let them starve?" He did not want to go back, and we did not want him to go either. he did finish the two week course, but turned down the offer of admission to the school that Fall.

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dr. james willingham
on August 12, 2015 at 13:40:48 pm

While I appreciate the defense of Officer Wilson, I find it remarkable that Weiner describes the Ferguson P.D. as “justly excoriated”….

I’m sure that the Ferguson P.D. has faults, like any police department….

Maybe all police departments have the same faults as Ferguson – but I hope not. As the DoJ report documents, the police department had become a major revenue center for this decaying city. For example, the report quotes a memo from the city’s finance director to the city manager, saying that he had asked “the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try.”

Now, maybe this merely reflects the spin of biased parties. But if so, the Missouri State Legislature is a biased party, because they passed legislation to clamp down on the kind of predatory behavior Ferguson has engaged in.

(That said, I do regard the Missouri legislature as a biased party. The legislature is dominated by white rural Republicans; Ferguson -- and St. Louis generally -- is dominated by black urban Democrats. So there’s every reason to suspect the legislature of bias. But that merely illustrates that there’s reason to suspect all human behavior of bias. So the DoJ is hardly unusual in this regard.)

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on August 12, 2015 at 13:54:54 pm

In case you missed it, This American Life did a story about the Ferguson school district, called Normandy. The state had ranked it the worst school district in Missouri. It has failed to reach minimum state standards for 15 years running. And this was the school district from which Michael Brown had graduated, only days before the shooting.

And that made him one of the few, the proud -- the black men of Normandy who actually stayed in school until graduation. Though much good a Normandy education did him – or anyone.

Before listening to the story, practice these mantras: Despair serves no function. Despair is a luxury we can’t afford. Despair is not an option….

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on August 16, 2015 at 19:11:24 pm

The author of this opinion fails to identify any actual civil right that the former police officer has lost. He names only one — the presumption of innocence — but does not justify the claim that the former police officer lost his right to the presumption of innocence. Because a trial was never held, the presumption of innocence was never in question in a court of law. There is no established right to a presumption of innocence in the media.

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Astute reader

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