Riots have broken out in the city of Ferguson, Missouri after a grand jury decided not to indict a police officer for killing the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.
Darren Wilson could have faced charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder, but the jury found there was no probable cause to charge him with any crime following the shooting.
Protesters have expressed outrage at the decision, while Brown’s family have said they were “profoundly disappointed” by the grand jury’s finding.
But how can a police officer shoot dead an unarmed 18-year-old and be found to have acted in keeping with both the law and his training, as Wilson’s lawyers claim?
Leniency towards officers of the law
In declining to indict Wilson, the grand jury reached a conclusion that is far more the norm than the exception.
"For a cop to be indicted and especially to be convicted later of a crime in these kinds of situations is very, very unusual," said Chuck Drago, a police practices consultant and former police chief in Oviedo, Florida.
Wilson’s perception of imminent threat
States and police departments have developed their own policies that generally permit officers to use force when they reasonably fear imminent physical harm. They are also entitled to fire if they believe a suspect likely to cause death or serious injury to another person.
In pictures: New Ferguson unrest
In pictures: New Ferguson unrest
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A demonstrator sits in front of a street fire during a demonstration following the grand jury decision in the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of Michael Brown, in Oakland. The grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer over the fatal August shooting of an unarmed black teenager
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A demonstrator holds a protest sign in Oakland after the announcement of the grand jury decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old
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Police in riot gear tangle with a woman in front of emergency vehicles in Ferguson Missouri
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Police fire tear gas at protesters in Ferguson
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A protester holding a flare runs on Highway 580 during a demonstration following the grand jury decision in Ferguson
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Men try to stop protesters from throwing rocks at local businesses after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson
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Protestors stand and kneel in the street as police advance on them in Ferguson
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A protester burns an American flag on Highway 580 during a demonstration following the grand jury decision in the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of Michael Brown, in Oakland
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Riot policemen clash with protesters in Ferguson
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A man walks past a burning building during rioting after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson
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Michael Brown's mother Leslie McSpadden (C) and other protesters react after hearing the grand jury decision in the fatal shooting of her son in Ferguson
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Dante Kaleo holds a protest sign while marching on Interstate 580 in Oakland
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People lay on the ground on Rodeo Drive and Wilshire Blvd during a demonstration in Beverly Hills, following the grand jury decision in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson
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A gas station burns as demonstrators protest the Grand Jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson over the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson
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A woman treats her face for possible tear gas exposure in Ferguson Missouri
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Protestors parade in the parking lot of a burning auto parts store in Ferguson
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Police grab a protester during a demonstration in Oakland
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Protesters block Interstate 580 in Oakland
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Cars burn at a dealership in Dellwood
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A woman gets water poured on her face after police pepper sprayed demonstrators attempting to stop traffic on Interstate 5 following the grand jury decision in the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of Michael Brown, in Seattle
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A police vehicle passes a business set ablaze by protestors in Ferguson
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People walk away from a warehouse in flames after the grand jury's decision
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A building burns opposite Canfield Drive, the street where Michael Brown was shot
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Demonstrators flee as police fire tear gas during a demonstration to protest the death 18-year-old Michael Brown
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A police car burns in Ferguson, Missouri
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A group of people raise their arms while chanting "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" during a protest
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Police officers confront protesters after the announcement of the grand jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson
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A group of protesters vandalize a police vehicle
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Protesters vandalize a police car outside the Ferguson Police Department
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A woman approaches the barricade to confront the police outside the Ferguson Police Department
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A protester stands with his hands on his head as a cloud of tear gas approaches after a grand jury returned no indictment
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St. Louis County police officers stand guard in front of the Ferguson police department
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Protesters gather in front of the Ferguson Police Department before the announcement of the grand jury decision
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People embrace at the memorial location for Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri,
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A police officer secures an area around the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton, Missouri where a grand jury is considering whether to indict a white Ferguson police officer who shot and killed an 18-year-old black teenager, Michael Brown.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
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Police rush in to break up protesters outside the Ferguson Police Station in Ferguson, Missouri
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Michael Brown's family attorney Anthony Gray (L) speaks during an announcement for Justice Disciple volunteers
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A makeshift memorial on the street in Ferguson where Michael Brown died
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Demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, mount a protest ahead of the grand jury’s decision. Such protests have been ongoing in the city since 18-year-old Michael Brown’s killing
The Supreme Court shaped the U.S. standard in a 1989 decision that said the use of force must be evaluated through the "perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene" rather than being judged after the fact.
Given what's known about Wilson's account of the shooting, it's most likely that the grand jury decided Wilson was justified under self-defence — that he feared for his life when Brown (in his telling) assaulted him in his car and tried to grab at his gun.
Fight with a "felon"
Lawyers for Brown's family say the teen was trying to surrender when he was shot, while Wilson's supporters say the officer feared for his life and opened fire in self-defence.
But results from the autopsy suggest that at least some of the shots fired were when Brown was fleeing.
Whether or not Brown then turned back to “charge” at Wilson again – as it seems is his account – those shots could be justified if Wilson deemed them to be stopping a dangerous felon likely to cause serious harm to someone else.
McCulloch said last night that Brown was a suspect in a nearby robbery – potentially making him a felon.
Inconsistent witness accounts
A number of witnesses have described to the media how they saw Brown standing still with his hands in the air when he was fatally shot.
But McCulloch described a tangled mass of conflicting testimony from 60 witnesses about what happened during the incident that led to Brown's death.
He said that not all of them could be right – and that much of the testimony did not square with the physical evidence.
Witnesses disagreed on whether Brown's hands were up at the time he was shot, McCulloch said, adding that Wilson shot at Brown 12 times. The final shot hit Brown in the top of his head.
David Klinger, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St Louis and an authority on police shootings, told the Guardian that this fatal last bullet's trajectory suggested a “body tilted forward from the waist”.
“It’s not necessarily evidence that he was charging. But it is evidence that suggests he wasn’t standing still with his hands up.”
Severity of Wilson’s own injuries
Pictures have emerged since the incident that purportedly show the injuries Wilson received.
Though many have pointed out that they don't appear particularly serious, any harm is likely to impact the threat the police officer perceived.
“If an officer is already injured, he is not reasonably going to sit there and let a guy beat him because he can’t use anything but his gun to defend himself,” Klinger said.
The choice to go to a grand jury at all
Some concerns have been raised that the unusual call to hand over the Wilson indictment decision to a grand jury represented a reluctance on prosecutor McCulloch’s part to pursue justice.
Alex Little, a former federal prosecutor, told Vox that McCulloch had already “decided to abdicate his role in the process as an advocate for justice” by giving the decision to a jury.
“At that point, there's no longer a prosecutor in the room guiding the grand jurors, and — more importantly — no state official acting on behalf of the victim, Michael Brown,” he said.
It is worth noting that Wilson could still face action over the shooting.
A separate federal probe into the shooting is still going on, and US Attorney General Eric Holder emphasised that the Justice Department investigators had not reached any conclusions.
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