26

Joe Scarbrough blasted the media and the St. Louis Rams for coming onto the field in a silent protest in support of Michael Brown.

SCARBROUGH: Yeah, guys came out, hands up don’t shoot for the St. Louis Rams. Here’s a video of it. And what is so remarkable is they might as well have come out with a flying saucer attached to all of their heads in solidarity with Michael Brown being transported to Venus on a flying saucer. Because that happened as much as that happened. That’s according to grand jury testimony. That’s according to witnesses. They are using his accomplice in the robbery that was with him at the time who also claimed that Michael Brown was shot in the back. And for some reason, the media attaches to these narratives that will stir up further protests. And I got to say, I just got to a tipping point this weekend…

Do witnesses in the grand jury testimony/forensic evidence contradict the account given by Michael Brown's acquaintance who was with him at the time.

According to grand jury testimony, were Michael Brown's hands up when he was shot?

  • 8
    The great thing about being part of "the media", as Joe Scarborough is, is that you can still say "the media is lying about this" without a trace of irony or self-awareness ;-) Note that Scarborough makes two related claims here, and you ask two different questions. One is "were Brown's hands up according to testimony", to which the answer below is "yes". But the answer to "were Brown's hands down according to testimony" is also "yes". The second question, "were Brown's hands up?" isn't settled by the testimony alone, and probably can't be answered here. – Steve Jessop Dec 2 '14 at 16:10
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    There is no way for us to know if hands were up, down, part way up, level, moving one direction or the other or in his pockets. Eyewitnesses give accounts that are normal for most groups of eyewitnesses, i.e., that the postures and gestures could be anything. Google { eyewitness testimony reliability } for some scientific and legal perspectives. – user2338816 Dec 3 '14 at 5:11
  • I don't see how this question is supposed to be answered. If witnesses couldn't agree on even one thing, how could anyone on a random forum might answer? – BЈовић Dec 3 '14 at 14:32
  • @BЈовић The question in the title is whether they were up "according to grand jury testimony": so I think the question is about the testimony. – ChrisW Dec 3 '14 at 16:31
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    @ChrisW "Were Michael Brown's hands up when he was shot in Ferguson?" <- This is what is being asked at the end of the text. – BЈовић Dec 3 '14 at 17:18
44

There were multiple witnesses that gave testimony, with conflicting testimonies.

Vox.com offers "A one-chart summary of every Ferguson eyewitness's grand jury testimony".

Chart

From the third column from the right, it can be seen 12 witnesses (in 16 interviews) said that Michael Brown put his hands up when fired upon, two said he didn't, and many didn't know or were not asked.

Note: Taking a simple majority of eyewitnesses statements isn't a safe method of determining the truth.

  • 7
    For example, Witness 14 in your chart says hands up, but their testimony says, "he raised his hands, but he didn't raise them all the way up." I suppose this is the pessimist/optimistic argument over is a glass half empty/full, but without the original source you have to depend on the chart maker's interpretation. – user1873 Dec 2 '14 at 15:59
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    Oh man, I'm using this chart the next time someone tells me that their eye-witnesses to alien abduction or other-such are reliable. – DampeS8N Dec 2 '14 at 16:16
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    @ChrisW: In a brief article I remember reading, the DA at least claimed (original quote) that several testimonies contradicted forensic evidence (or themselves over time) which put more emphasis on others (obvious which ones by outcome). No further explanation was given; this is second-hand, by the DA, and so not what you are looking for obviously. – gnometorule Dec 2 '14 at 16:41
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    In your counts (e.g. 16 witnesses), you're counting interviews, not distinct witnesses. I think it'd be more useful to count the latter. – Tim S. Dec 2 '14 at 16:48
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    @user1873: You raise an interesting issue that I am wrestling with. Yes, accepting this chart is depending on a secondary source, which makes it less reliable. Citing every witness is going to make this a rather unwieldy answer. My intention was not to draw a conclusion about whether Michael Brown's hands were up, but to demonstrate that the witness testimonials were (at least partially) conflicting, so one can't simply argue one account is "according to witnesses" - i.e. it is more complicated than that. I think this chart, despite being a secondary source, demonstrates that point. – Oddthinking Dec 2 '14 at 23:20
19

According to the Washington Post article titled Witness 10 proves Darren Wilson had a reasonable belief he needed to shoot Michael Brown (which cites this document which claims to be a transcript of the grand jury testimony), there was an independent (i.e. other than Officer Darren Wilson) witness (named as "Witness 10") who testified that Michael Brown's hands weren't up, and that he was charging not surrendering.

Quoting the Washington Post,

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. ... And when he stopped, that’s when the officer ceased fire and when he ceased fired, 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).

See also Did Michael Brown charge? Eyewitnesses paint a muddled picture


A since-deleted comment asked why the Washington Times might have "cherry-picked" this witness over others: Why do you believe that "witness 10" is more trustworthy than others?

To answer that question/comment, (at the risk of quoting too much of it) some reasons why the Washington Times article focuses on Witness 10 include the following:

  1. It's sufficient (for the defence) if one reasonable person has the same belief as the defendant:

    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.

    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 No. 10. If his objective assessment was that Officer Wilson acted appropriately, that would be strong evidence demonstrating that Wilson’s belief was reasonable.

    My guess is that any so-called "strong evidence" might be enough to make an at-trial conclusion of "innocence because of reasonable doubt" almost inevitable.

    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.

  2. Witness 10 is not contradicted by forensics evidence:

    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.

    Finally, Witness 10 describes Wilson firing a series of shots as Brown charged forward. This conforms to the physical evidence showing that the bullet wounds to Brown’s body and head came from the front and that they had a downward trajectory.

  3. Witness 10 provides independent corroboration of Officer Wilson's testimony:

    Witness 10 not only gave this testimony to the grand jury under oath on Sept. 23, but also much earlier. On Monday, Aug. 11 — two days after the shooting — he gave a recorded interview to two St. Louis County Police detectives. This was before any autopsy had been completed and before the media had reported other physical evidence. Witness 10′s later grand jury testimony is consistent with the statement he gave the police just 48 hours after the shooting.

    Perhaps even more important for those trying to get to the bottom of what happened is that Witness 10′s sworn testimony tracks almost perfectly the sworn testimony of Darren Wilson. For example, Witness 10 describes Wilson pursuing but not firing at Brown initially, until Brown turned and charged. Moreover, Witness 10 describes an initial series of shots, Brown stopping, Wilson stopping firing, and then Brown resuming his charge. Wilson gave the same testimony, talking about a “pause” between a first and second round of shots (vol. 5, 229:1) — only to be forced to fire by Brown’s final rush.

    In sum, Witness 10 had a clear view of all the events. He gave testimony that tracked not only Officer Wilson’s testimony, but also the ballistic evidence. He gave a (recorded) statement to the police very shortly after the events. He did not know Michael Brown or Officer Wilson. And, for those who deem this important, he was reportedly an African American.

  4. The grand jury had an opprtunity to assess the relative credibility of each witness:

    PBS acknowledged that its chart “doesn’t reveal who was right or wrong about what happened that day, but it is a clear indication that perceptions and memories can vary dramatically.” This concession is required, because a fair assessment (such as the grand jury was tasked with making) involves not simply toting up the number of witnesses on competing sides, but determining the quality of their accounts. The grand jury observed the demeanor of all of the witnesses and, perhaps even more important, had other evidence (including physical evidence) to sort out which witnesses were giving credible testimony.

  5. The Washington Times also claims that other witnesses weren't impartial, and may for example have been subject to witness intimidation:

    Why should Witness 10′s testimony be believed over other accounts? Sadly, Witness 10 gives a clear explanation about how at least some of these conflicting accounts developed. He explained that immediately after the shooting, he began

    “observing the chaotic [situation], how it got so chaotic so quick[ly], and different point of views on, it didn’t add up to what I actually witnessed. I felt very uncomfortable and … I would probably estimate I was down on the scene maybe five to 10 minutes … just observing everything and how the uproar became about so quickly”(vol. 6, 190:16).

    When he started saying what he had seen, some in the crowd became verbally “violent” toward him (204:3) and started directing racial slurs toward him (206:10). The next day, Witness 10 felt even more uncomfortable after he had

    “seen all the rioting. I just felt bad about the situation. I knew that I needed to come forward to let the truth be told” (192:6).

    And so, “after seeing the rioting,” he called St. Louis County Police:

    “So I went down to the police station and I felt uncomfortable then just walking past all the protesting that was going on, but I knew it was the right thing to do. It is an unfortunate situation, but I know God put me in this situation for a reason” (192:21).

    Witness 10 also spoke poignantly of trying to bring some comfort to Michael Brown’s family:

    I came forward to bring closure to the family and also for the police officer because … with me knowing actually what happened … I know it is going to be a hard case and a hard thing to prove with so many people that’s saying the opposite of what I actually seen. I just wanted to bring closure to the family not thinking that hey … they got away with murdering my son. I do know that there is corruption in some police departments and I believe that this was not the case. And I just wanted to bring closure to the family (194:22).

    Witness 10 also told the grand jury about a continuing concern for safety in testifying: “Within my [redacted] family … [t]hey fear for my safety or our family’s safety” (206:2).

    Given the intimidation campaign that Witness 10 described, it is not surprising that PBS would find that a slight majority of the statements tracked the narrative that the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” protesters were relying on.

  6. Some of the other witness testimony seems less reliable:

    More helpful than the PBS chart is the collection of testimony from The Post. With links to the underlying grand jury testimony, a reader can click on the competing statements and read them in their entirety. But here is one overall assessment of what can be found among the testimony: “An Associated Press review of thousands of pages of grand jury documents reveals numerous examples of statements made during the shooting investigation that were inconsistent, fabricated or provably wrong. For one, the autopsies ultimately showed Brown was not struck by any bullets in his back.”

In summary,

But as I have tried to explain in this post, the issue that the grand jury ultimately had to decide was whether Officer Wilson’s assessment of the danger he faced was a reasonable one. Witness 10 was a reasonable person. He thought Wilson faced such a danger. Unless there was good reason to doubt this witness’s apparently fair-minded assessment, Officer Wilson was entitled to use deadly force in self-defense, and the grand jury plainly did the right thing in declining to indict.

  • @Philipp I edited the answer, to try to answer that question. – ChrisW Dec 5 '14 at 13:39
9

The witness testimonies are mixed as to whether his arms were up.

Apart from those witness testimonies there's forensic evidence, which includes the medical examiner's report, which describes (among other things) the entry and exit of gunshot wounds to the arm, as follows:

There is a gunshot wound of the upper ventral right arm. There is a gunshot exit wound of the upper dorsal right arm. There is a gunshot entrance wound of the dorsal right forearm. There is a gunshot exit wound of the medial ventral right forearm. There is a tangential (graze) gunshot wound of the right bicep.

For the purpose of this question we can ignore the wound to the hand which, due to the presence of gunpowder stippling, likely occurred in the vehicle. We know the above three gunshot wounds did not occur inside the vehicle as they would exhibit stippling from such close range. Stippling is found in gunshot wounds of less than 30 inches (76cm) distance.

The entrance and exit wounds to the arm are due to two single shots, entering and exiting the arm:

  • The ventral side of the upper arm
  • The dorsal side of the lower arm

Here's a quick primer on the medical terminology used. The ventral surface of the human body is the front of the body with the palm of the hand facing forward, as this picture shows:

Body symmetry image showing words used to describe locations on the human body.

From section 27.2 of the Openstax Biology book, cc-by-4.0

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • 1
    It's just too bad we can't determine in what order the shots were fired. I know that even if my arms were up, after being shot a couple times they probably wouldn't be. If these were conclusively the first shots fired, it would be much more convincing. – Is Begot Dec 3 '14 at 16:43
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    Why is there a not stating that this post does not cite any references? There's a link at the top of the post referencing the medical examiner's report. – Nathan Cox Dec 3 '14 at 18:46
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    This answer contains a considerable amount of interpretation of the report. We're not pathologists, we can't really judge this ourselves. I'd really like to have a forensic answer here, but it would have to be a direct quote from the pathologist, and not an interpretation. – Mad Scientist Dec 3 '14 at 19:15
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    @Oddthinking I don't know. Go here and start with Grand Jury Volume 1. – Adam Davis Dec 3 '14 at 21:53
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    @AdamDavis Check meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/2895/… (and I agree that your original answer didn't require expert knowledge to judge and all sources were checkable) – David Mulder Dec 4 '14 at 10:27

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