As news spreads of the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, many have already begun to speculate as to the result. Some say Wilson will go to jail murdering a boy in cold blood, and others say he was justified in defending himself and should not face jail time for doing his job. Although the facts of the case are not crystal clear, it is important to view the facts and apply the law in as unbiased a manner as possible. An analysis of the relevant statutes and possible facts of the case follows.
Pursuant to Missouri Revised Statute section 563.046, a police officer’s use of deadly force is justified only when: he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to protect himself or another from death, serious injury, or forcible felony; or, when he reasonably believes that deadly force is immediately necessary to achieve arrest, and also believes that the person to be arrested has committed or attempted a felony, is attempting to escape using a deadly weapon, or may otherwise endanger life unless arrested immediately. While the “necessary to effect arrest” clause seems overly lenient, the Supreme Court limited its effect in Tennessee v. Garner. There, the Court ruled that the use of deadly force on a fleeing suspect is only justified if the officer has probable cause to believe the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or others. Therefore, this statute can effectively be reduced to one rule: reasonable belief that deadly force is necessary to protect someone from death or serious bodily injury. However, this defense of justification may not be as easily applied as some may think.
The reasonableness of the use of deadly force “must be determined from the point of view of a reasonable officer in the situation, ‘rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.’" The factors to consider when analyzing the reasonableness of force used are the severity of the crime, whether the suspect posed an immediate threat, and whether the suspect was evading/resisting arrest. Apparently, the main factor in determining whether the use of deadly force is reasonable is whether the officer reasonably thought that the victim had a deadly weapon so as to make the officer fear for his or a third person’s life.
Dorian Johnson, an eyewitness, says, and videotape corroborates, that he and Michael Brown took part in a robbery. Robbery is not only a felony, but also a forcible felony under Missouri state law. Darren Wilson alleges that he “made the connection” that Brown was involved in the robberies after stopping Brown for blocking traffic. Even assuming that Wilson made this connection, he will have to show that he reasonably believed that deadly force was necessary in order to effect arrest, and that he reasonably thought Brown to be a threat. Alternatively, Wilson will have to show that he reasonably was protecting himself from death or serious injury.
This case can only be decided by a jury, as both sides offer different stories. Wilson will argue that Brown fought back, and even attempted to reach for the officer’s pistol. If true, this would definitely allow for the defense of justification. However, if witness testimony that Brown submitted to the officer is true, then clearly no defense of justification is available. In this regard, Wilson has a distinct advantage.
In the end, the jury will have a tough decision to make, although hopefully more evidence will be obtained to make the decision easier. Would a reasonable officer have thought that Brown was a serious threat to the officer’s safety? Was shooting Brown six times necessary to prevent serious harm? In this author’s opinion, even if shooting Brown once was necessary to prevent harm, an additional five shots could not have been necessary.
Associate Publications Editor, Criminal Law Practitioner
Photo by Jamesw007, via Wikimedia Commons.