In Ferguson, A Trove Of Evidence — But No Trial
On Monday night, St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCullough delivered the news that police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the shooting death of Michael Brown. And in an unusual move, the announcement was accompanied by the release of an enormous batch of evidence presented to the grand jury — including much-talked about photos of Wilson, taken after he shot and killed Brown.
Wilson's medical record, dated Aug. 9 at 2:20 p.m., describes his condition as "other/unspecified injury to face and neck" and a "contusion of face/scalp/neck except eye."
People on Twitter were skeptical of the photos. This widely-spread tweet is representative of many:
Vox's Ezra Klein expanded on this skepticism, describing Wilson's re-telling of his altercation with Brown as "unbelievable":
"Unbelievable things happen every day. The fact that his story raises more questions than it answers doesn't mean it isn't true.
But the point of a trial would have been to try to answer these questions. We would have either found out if everything we thought we knew about Brown was wrong, or if Wilson's story was flawed in important ways. But now we're not going to get that chance. We're just left with Wilson's unbelievable story."
Vox also pulled together tweets from a prominent lawyer, talking about how she would have cross-examined Wilson.
Even with a trial, there can be a significant disparity between what the public sees in evidence like this and what a jury sees. Police practices experts and forensic pathologists told me that in evaluating photos like the ones of Wilson, they'd want to consider factors such as how much time had elapsed since taking the photo, the depth of the injury, and the person's own vital reaction or response to tissue injury.
"What I see here seems very consistent with [Wilson's] testimony that he has been punched in the face. But I don't know if this wasn't somebody else punching him, if this was some other injury — something he did to himself," explains Victor W. Weedn, the chair of forensic sciences at George Washington University. "I have no reason to disbelieve his testimony; this is certainly consistent with his testimony, I just can't rule out that it's some other injury."
"All these things snowball into each other, and while the trials of their shooters are about the particulars of their cases, they are also about all the other gruesome cases that came before them. ... We end up talking about everything, all at once, even though our criminal justice system isn't meant to resolve all of that context. Sometimes it feels as if it's not even capable of resolving the specifics of the cases in front of it."
And at the moment, without a court trial, those striving for more answers or more action might be met with more questions. What exists instead are thousands of pages of evidence.