Michael Smerconish: Too many quick to judge in Brown case
Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri, more than three weeks ago now. Since then, the case has been the talk of the nation. I’ve discussed it with family and friends, on radio and on television. I’ve also paid close attention to the constant attention in other media. Based on what is in the public domain, I find it stunning – and disappointing – that so many think they know what occurred.
Here is what we do know: First, that an 18-year-old African-American named Mike Brown was shot dead by a police officer. We also know that the Ferguson police chief has identified the officer as Darren Wilson.
And we know that Brown was unarmed when he died.
We also know that a videotape appears to have captured Brown, accompanied by a friend named Dorian Johnson, involved in the strong-arm robbery of a convenience store just minutes before the confrontation with Wilson.
Johnson claims that when he and Brown were stopped by Wilson for walking in the middle of the street, Brown tried to surrender to the officer.
That certainly necessitates a full and impartial investigation.
But there’s so much that we – the public – don’t know.
That video of the so-called strong-arm robbery seems to show two store employees. What do they have to say?
And what was said in any 911 call(s) about the robbery? What do the police radio transmissions among officers just before and after the shooting tell us? There has been no release of any of this information.
And then there is the shooting itself. It is sad that we will never get Brown’s side of things. In addition, at this stage, we don’t know the officer’s account. Wilson has been questioned by investigators, but we don’t know what he said. All we know is what a radio caller named “Josie” told a St. Louis radio station, and that’s not reliable. It’s hearsay.
We know of some eyewitness accounts because of interviews given to the media. But what about those who may have seen something relevant but who have avoided the public spotlight? Again, we don’t know.
And what about all the contradictions in the eyewitness accounts?
Then there are the forensics. We’ve been told about the results of a so-called independent autopsy, but not the official one, or the federal autopsy. Michael Baden, a former New York City medical examiner, performed the independent autopsy, but he didn’t have access to Brown’s clothing or X-rays, so it was of limited value. The ballistics information is yet another public mystery.
Last week, an audiotape surfaced that may have captured the sounds of the fatal gunshots. When I listened, I counted 10 or 11 shots, with a pause between them. Immediately, some interpreted the pause as evidence of Wilson’s wanton disregard of life, while others attributed the pause to that moment before Brown charged the officer. Both assessments were ridiculous because we have no idea whether the tape is authentic.
This climate of uncertainty might not resolve itself soon. A grand jury is evaluating evidence and will ultimately decide whether an indictment is warranted. Let’s assume there is no indictment. Then state sunshine laws will facilitate the release of the information. And if there is an indictment, all the evidence will be presented – but not until there is a trial.
If there is so much we don’t know, why are so many committed to a particular outcome? A Rasmussen poll last week found 57 percent of black adults who responded thought Wilson should be found guilty of murder. On a similar note, a New York Times/CBS News Poll found that 9 percent of Americans who responded believed the shooting of Brown was justified, 25 percent believed it was not, and 64 percent didn’t know.
I’m worried about the 34 percent who believed they knew enough to say. Among the 25 percent who believed the shooting was not justified, 57 percent are black.
Meanwhile, a Support Darren Wilson Facebook page has more than 75,000 “likes.” (I wonder what, exactly, they are “liking.”) And two GoFundMe campaigns for the police officer’s defense have already raised more than $425,000. (Why, at this stage, does the officer require a legal defense fund, and why would anyone donate to it not knowing more?)
The only thing anyone should desire at this time is a full accounting of what occurred – not that the officer be charged and convicted, nor that he be exonerated.
This case has become the racial equivalent of what we’ve grown accustomed to with the nation’s partisan divide. People weigh in without all the information needed to make a decision, largely based on who their teammates are. It’s the “he’s for it so I’m against it” mentality.
The stakes are too high in Ferguson for that kind of visceral analysis. One man is dead and another’s freedom may hang in the balance.
So let’s all pay attention, scrutinize information as it comes to light, and share our opinions on the evidence. But withhold final judgment. That’s what the rule of law demands.
Michael Smerconish writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His website is www.smerconish.com.