The Four Biggest Unanswered Questions About the Day Michael Brown Died

Nearly two weeks after the 18-year-old was killed by a Ferguson police officer, some details of Aug. 9 remain unclear.

A memorial set up in the spot where Michael Brown died on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo.
National Journal
Marina Koren
Aug. 22, 2014, 10:23 a.m.

More than a dozen law-en­force­ment agen­cies have traveled to Fer­guson in the last two weeks. Mi­chael Brown’s body has un­der­gone three sep­ar­ate autop­sies. Press con­fer­ences have numbered many, but the an­swers they provided few.

The Aug. 9 shoot­ing death of an un­armed black 18-year-old by a white po­lice of­ficer has since be­come a na­tion­al story about race re­la­tions, po­lice mil­it­ar­iz­a­tion, and press free­dom. Protests in the St. Louis sub­urb, once char­ac­ter­ized by heavy-handed crowd-con­trol tac­tics, have cooled in re­cent days, but people are still tak­ing to the streets, de­mand­ing an­swers.

A grand jury began hear­ing testi­mony about the day of the shoot­ing on Wed­nes­day. Nearly two weeks after Brown was killed, here’s what we still don’t know about the day it happened.

What happened right be­fore Brown was shot?

The de­tails of the in­ter­ac­tion between Brown and the Fer­guson po­lice of­ficer who shot him, Dar­ren Wilson, are dis­puted. Po­lice have said that Brown as­saul­ted Wilson after the of­ficer stopped him for jay­walk­ing on Can­field Drive, a two-lane street. Sev­er­al eye­wit­nesses say Brown was shot with his hands up in the air, shout­ing to the of­ficer that he was un­armed.

This is what happened, ac­cord­ing to St. Louis County Po­lice Chief Jon Bel­mar, CNN re­ports:

The of­ficer tried to leave his vehicle just be­fore the shoot­ing on Sat­urday af­ter­noon, but Brown pushed him back in­to the car, “where he phys­ic­ally as­saul­ted the po­lice of­ficer” and struggled over the of­ficer’s weapon, Bel­mar said.

A shot was fired in­side the po­lice car, and Brown was even­tu­ally shot about 35 feet away from the vehicle, Bel­mar said, adding few de­tails be­cause he didn’t want to “pre­ju­dice” the case.

This is what happened ac­cord­ing to Brown’s friend Dori­an John­son, 22, who was there when Brown was shot, as told to MS­N­BC. It star­ted when Wilson told the pair to “get the f”” onto the side­walk”:

After telling the of­ficer that they were al­most at their des­tin­a­tion, John­son’s house, the two con­tin­ued walk­ing. But as they did, John­son says the of­ficer slammed his brakes and threw his truck in re­verse, nearly hit­ting them.

Now, in line with the of­ficer’s driver’s-side door, they could see the of­ficer’s face. They heard him say something to the ef­fect of, “What’d you say?” At the same time, John­son says the of­ficer at­temp­ted to thrust his door open but the door slammed in­to Brown and bounced closed. John­son says the of­ficer, with his left hand, grabbed Brown by the neck.


“They’re not wrest­ling so much as his arm went from his throat to now clenched on his shirt,” John­son ex­plained of the scene between Brown and the of­ficer. “It’s like tug of war. He’s try­ing to pull him in. He’s pulling away, that’s when I heard, ‘I’m gonna shoot you.’ “


The of­ficer fired a shot, and John­son saw blood. The pair took off run­ning. A second shot struck Brown, who went down, turned with his hands up, and said, “I don’t have a gun, stop shoot­ing!” The of­ficer fired sev­er­al more shots, and it was over.

Fer­guson po­lice say Wilson sus­tained “a ser­i­ous fa­cial in­jury” as a res­ult of an al­ter­ca­tion with Brown right be­fore the shoot­ing. The ex­tent of the in­jury, al­tern­ately de­scribed as swell­ing and a frac­tured eye sock­et, re­mains un­known.

How were the shots fired?

Brown was shot at least six times, in­clud­ing twice in the head, ac­cord­ing to a private autopsy per­formed at the re­quest of his fam­ily.

One of the bul­lets struck the top of Brown’s skull, sug­gest­ing that his head was bent for­ward at the time of im­pact. But Dr. Mi­chael M. Baden, the former chief med­ic­al ex­am­iner for New York City who per­formed the autopsy, doesn’t know why that is. “It can be be­cause he’s giv­ing up, or be­cause he’s char­ging for­ward at the of­ficer,” he told The New York Times.

Baden re­covered only three bul­lets from Brown’s body. The loc­a­tion of the oth­ers is not known.

The dis­tance between Brown and Wilson when the shots were fired is also un­known. The autopsy found no gun­powder on Brown’s body, which sug­gests he was hit from a dis­tance great­er than 3 feet. But Baden didn’t have ac­cess to the clothes Brown was wear­ing that day. If gun­shot residue was found on Brown’s clothes, that would mean he was shot at close range.

Test­ing Wilson’s car for gun­powder could also re­veal wheth­er the of­ficer fired a shot from in­side his vehicle.

One thing about the forensics of Brown’s death is clear. The re­cent high-school gradu­ate, Baden said, would not have sur­vived the shoot­ing even if he had re­ceived med­ic­al care right away.

Why did Brown’s body re­main on the street for hours after his death?

The body re­mained in the middle of Can­field Drive for more than four hours after the shoot­ing, ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post. An of­ficer placed a sheet over it, and cones and bar­ri­cades were set up in the street. People gathered at the scene, some won­der­ing aloud why po­lice had not yet re­moved the body.

The body was even­tu­ally loaded in­to a po­lice SUV, rather than an am­bu­lance.

Jack­son told The Post he was “un­com­fort­able” with the length of time Brown’s body re­mained on the ground. An as­sess­ment of the crime scene was delayed, he said, by the sound of sev­er­al gun­shots around 2 p.m., two hours after Brown was shot. The source of the gun­shots was nev­er de­term­ined.

Did Wilson know about the rob­bery?

Fer­guson po­lice say that Brown was the primary sus­pect in a strong-arm rob­bery of a con­veni­ence store shortly be­fore the shoot­ing. But when the po­lice de­part­ment re­leased po­lice re­ports and store sur­veil­lance foot­age of the rob­bery, its chief, Tom Jack­son, said the in­cid­ent and the shoot­ing were not re­lated. Wilson had been aler­ted that a rob­bery had oc­curred in town, po­lice sug­ges­ted, but Wilson did not know Brown was a sus­pect when the of­ficer en­countered him, The New York Times re­ports.

However, Jack­son later told the St. Louis Post-Dis­patch that Wilson real­ized Brown could be the sus­pect of the rob­bery when the of­ficer saw the ci­gars that were re­por­ted stolen in Brown’s hand.

So did Wilson know about the rob­bery or not? And how would that know­ledge, or lack there­of, in­flu­ence Wilson’s per­cep­tion of Brown, or con­trib­ute to the shoot­ing?

Wilson left his home in sub­urb­an Crest­wood, Mo., after the shoot­ing, and his where­abouts are un­known.

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