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A Look At The Federal Investigations Into Michael Brown's Death

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now we're going to hear about the federal investigation into the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. While the state grand jury voted not to bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson, the U.S. Justice Department could still bring its own criminal charges under federal civil rights law. Here's Attorney General Eric Holder talking about that last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC HOLDER: While federal civil rights law imposes an extremely high legal burden in these cases, we have resisted prejudging the evidence or forming premature conclusions.

BLOCK: I'm joined now by attorney William Yeomans. He's spent 24 years in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Welcome back to the program.

WILLIAM YEOMANS: It's a pleasure to be here, Melissa.

BLOCK: And we just heard Attorney General Holder talk about the extremely high legal burden that would have to be bet. What is that bar? How high is it?

YEOMANS: Well, the federal government would have to show that Officer Wilson acted with the specific intent to use more force than was reasonably necessary. So what that means is that he had to knowingly use more force than was necessary, and the government has to show that that was his state of mind at the time. So that's difficult. It's also difficult to meet the reasonableness test, which is an objective test. But of course, I've said that it has to be evaluated in the context of everything that Officer Wilson was confronting at the time. So that gives law enforcement lots of leeway.

BLOCK: So that's what would make it an extremely high burden?

YEOMANS: Yes.

BLOCK: We know quite a bit about what happened in that state grand jury because the transcripts of the proceedings were made public. It's very unusual. As you read through the testimony on this question of whether Michael Brown's civil rights were willfully violated by Officer Wilson, does it strike you that the Justice Department has a path toward bringing charges? Or is that burden - do you think - reasonably not met?

YEOMANS: Well, I think it's a difficult path. But I think that there are further questions that the federal government can explore. So there are really two crucial points. One - what happened in the car? What Officer Wilson was thinking at the time. Was he really in fear of his life, or was he angry? Was he trying to seek a confrontation? And then, when he got out of the car and followed Michael Brown, what was he doing? Was he shooting because he wanted to shoot him? Or was he shooting because he actually feared for his life?

BLOCK: Can you think of another case of a shooting by a police officer that follows the basic contours of this case and that has led to a federal prosecution on civil rights charges?

YEOMANS: Prosecutions of police officers for shootings are rare, so I can't think of one that's exactly like this. I mean, one example that has frequently been cited is the case of Amadou Diallo, who was shot in 1999 in the Bronx by New York Police Department officers.

BLOCK: He was an immigrant from Ghana. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we said Amadou Diallo was an immigrant from Ghana. In fact, he was from Guinea. Diallo was shot in 1999 by New York Police Department officers.]

YEOMANS: He was. He was reaching for his wallet to show identification. The officers thought that he was pulling a weapon. And he fired 41 shots at him, and he was killed. And the federal government, after much agonizing, decided that it could not bring charges in a situation like that. So the cases of shootings are very difficult to bring.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about another prong in this federal investigation that's separate from the criminal probe into the shooting by Officer Wilson. And that is a broad look at the practices of the Ferguson Police Department as a whole. And what would the Justice Department be looking at in Ferguson, and what might result from that?

YEOMANS: Well, the department will be looking at a broad range of practices of the Ferguson Police Department, including the way it trains its officers on the use of force, the way it disciplines its officers, the way it hires its officers. As we know, Ferguson has a police force that is overwhelmingly white policing in overwhelmingly African-American jurisdiction. So it will look at all of those things. And what could come out of it is an agreement that would be entered in court as a consent decree that would require Ferguson to implement a broad range of reforms governing all of those subjects.

BLOCK: And this is something that has happened, actually, in a number of cities around the country.

YEOMANS: Yes, it has. Recent examples include Albuquerque, New Orleans, Seattle. This administration has been very active in pursuing these pattern or practice cases.

BLOCK: Would you think that this - it would be more likely for them to get an agreement on reforming the Ferguson Police Department overall than it would be to bring criminal charges against Officer Wilson?

YEOMANS: Yes. Well, I think the criminal charges are still a long shot. I think it's almost certain that there will be pattern or practice reforms implemented as a result of the civil investigation.

BLOCK: William Yeomans, thanks again for coming in.

YEOMANS: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's William Yeomans, a former civil rights prosecutor at the Justice Department. He now teaches at the Washington College of Law at American University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 3, 2014 at 12:00 AM EST
In this report, we say Amadou Diallo was an immigrant from Ghana. In fact, he was from Guinea.