Justice Department condemns Ferguson leaks as effort to sway opinion

Justice Department condemns Ferguson leaks as effort to influence public opinion on Brown killing

With a grand jury decision looming on whether a white police officer should face charges in the killing of an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Mo., the investigation has sprung a few leaks.

New details from the inquiry into Michael Brown’s Aug. 9 death — all provided by unidentified sources and which seem to support Officer Darren Wilson’s story of what happened that day — have emerged in St. Louis and national news outlets in recent days.

The U.S. Department of Justice condemned the leaks Wednesday as “irresponsible and highly troubling” and said, “There seems to be an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case.”

The details and news reports say that Brown struggled with Wilson in his patrol car and that Wilson’s gun went off in the car before a brief foot chase ensued.

Wilson ultimately shot Brown several times, and Brown’s body lay in the street for more than four hours, kindling a rage on the streets of Ferguson and St. Louis that has yet to wholly subside.

The leaks seemed to create a fresh rupture in trust with black St. Louis-area officials and protesters, who said Wednesday that they were upset with what they saw as another breakdown in the justice system because information from the supposedly secret grand jury continued to appear in the media. The grand jury’s decision is expected in November.

“There is no way there should be reports from all these anonymous sources and these ‘leaks’ ....This is supposed to play out in the courts and the justice system, and not the media,” said Patricia Bynes, a committeewoman for Ferguson township, which includes the city of Ferguson, and a prominent voice in the protest movement. Quoting a popular chant, she added, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”



Oct. 23, 11:12 a.m.: This article previously referred to Patricia Bynes as a Ferguson resident. Bynes is a committeewoman for the Ferguson township -- a county-level political district that includes the city of Ferguson -- and does not live in the city of Ferguson.


The New York Times reported that investigators found Brown’s blood on Wilson’s gun, on the interior door panel of Wilson’s car and on Wilson’s uniform.

The Washington Post reported that several black witnesses had provided details in secret grand jury testimony that supported Wilson’s account.

And the official autopsy report, obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, showed a gunshot wound to Brown’s hand that appeared to be from close range. That seemed to support the officer’s account that there was a struggle for his gun inside his patrol car.

According to the preliminary police account, which was included in the autopsy report, the confrontation began when Wilson spotted Brown and a friend walking in the street:

Wilson “observed the two individuals, he requested that they get out of the roadway. The deceased became belligerent towards Officer Wilson.

“As Officer Wilson attempted to exit out of his patrol vehicle the deceased pushed his door shut and began to struggle with Officer Wilson, during the struggle the Officers weapon was un-holstered. The weapon discharged during the struggle.

“The deceased then ran down the roadway. Officer Wilson then began to chase the deceased. As he was giving chase to the deceased, the deceased turned around and ran towards officer Wilson.

“Officer Wilson had his service weapon drawn, as the deceased began to run towards him, he discharged his service weapon several times.”

Benjamin Crump, the attorney for Brown’s family, said he was not surprised by the autopsy report’s details.

“Several independent witnesses indicated there was a brief altercation between Michael Brown and Officer Wilson at the patrol car,” Crump said in a statement. “What we want to know is why Officer Wilson shot Michael Brown multiple times and killed him even though he was more than 20 feet away from his patrol car; this is the crux of the matter!”

But other activists and St. Louis-area officials saw the leaks as the crux of the matter, deriding news outlets for reporting the leaked information and investigative officials for leaking it.

“A non-transparent grand jury process and a leaky investigation is not the way the outcome of this important case should be determined,” tweeted St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who participated in many Ferguson demonstrations. “These leaks do not help restore people's faith in the justice system. Quite the opposite.”

St. Louis County prosecutor’s office spokesman Ed Magee said his office probably wouldn’t investigate the leaks because prosecutors could not force journalists to divulge their sources and because the information could be coming from federal officials in Washington.

“There’s really nothing to investigate,” Magee said Wednesday. “We don’t have control over anybody leaking anything. All we can control is people in our office and the grand jury, and it’s not coming from us or the grand jury.”

He said that “you can tell by the information they have” that the leaks are not coming from the grand jury or the prosecutor’s office, citing reports using sourcing language such as “officials briefed on the investigation.”

“We’ve got a joint investigation going on [with federal officials], so we’re sharing information and we’ve been sharing information the whole time,” Magee said.

A Justice Department spokeswoman responded in a statement to the Los Angeles Times: “The department considers the selective release of information in this investigation to be irresponsible and highly troubling. Since the release of the convenience-store footage, there seems to be an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case.”

The reference to the convenience-store footage alluded to a video released by Ferguson police on the same day they disclosed Wilson's identity. The video showed Brown apparently intimidating a store clerk shortly before the shooting.

Chris King, managing editor of the St. Louis American, a newspaper for black audiences, said law enforcement officials had offered him the leaks, saying “they had been briefed on the evidence and it didn't look good for Michael Brown supporters,” but he declined and decried “third-party hearsay” in an editorial for the paper.

“Tensions are so high that preparations for riots, if Wilson walks free, are discussed in sober terms in local and national media and on street corners,” the American said in its editorial. “The editors of these powerful publications have shown a lapse in judgment and ethics that is not only shameful, but actually dangerous. We declare a mistrial in the court of public opinion.”

The paper asked that Wilson be charged with second-degree murder and that his case be taken to trial.

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5:29 p.m.: This story has been updated with comment from the U.S. Justice Department.