Considering an Unanswered Question about the Ferguson Events

I have not commented on the Michael Brown/Officer Darren Wilson case here on the blog. I preferred to wait until the grand jury had completed its investigation, which it did last week.

(“Justice,” by Don Sutherland, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Not that anyone cares much what I think about it, but I have a question that I have not seen raised anywhere.

Even after the grand jury’s results were released, I have continued to see reference to video and still images that “allegedly” show Brown robbing a store, or to the store itself as one that Brown “allegedly robbed,” but: if Michael Brown didn’t rob the store — i.e., if the person in the video is not him — then who did? Using the word “allegedly” may conform to some journalistic style manual, but continuing to say Brown was only “alleged” to have robbed the store seems at best naive and at worst, calculated.

We might give the press the benefit of its own supposed doubt. But if Michael Brown was the “gentle giant” his supporters believe he was, why didn’t his supporters track down the person who actually robbed the store? Why didn’t the hordes of sympathetic reporters roaming the streets of Ferguson and the greater Saint Louis area find and bring forward the actual perpetrator?

If someone else robbed that store, that would seem to be an important part of solidifying the image of Brown as a truly innocent victim on that August day. Given the lengths to which the press has gone to portray Brown in the best possible light, e.g., by selecting particular pictures to display, they might have been motivated to produce such a person. (The police would be under no such motivation, since they would have every reason to believe that the facts support the chronology that begins with Brown robbing the store.) In addition to the press, Michael Brown’s family and friends might be motivated to find the perpetrator, if such a person exists, in order to clear their son and friend’s name. But in the nearly 4 months since his death, I have not seen a single report that someone else committed that crime.

Why is that?

In fact, Dorian Johnson, who was in the store and later present at the shooting, testified to the grand jury that Brown not only stole Cigarillos from the store but did indeed shove the clerk — as seen in the video — in the process of leaving (see Volume 4 of the Grand Jury Proceedings, pages 32-7). We might consider the possibility that Johnson lied about the robbery — his testimony about the manner of Brown’s death did not match other witnesses’ testimony or the forensic evidence, for instance — but it seems likely that no one has come forward to confess to the crime or to identify someone other than Brown because no such person exists.

A Brief Aside on the Issue of Johnson’s Believability:

Both sides in the search for justice must be a bit disappointed in Dorian Johnson’s testimony. Johnson testified that Brown was shot while trying to surrender, casting doubt on Officer Wilson’s version of events, but his characterization of Brown’s interaction with the store clerk cast doubt on the “gentle giant” mystique as well. Should any one part of his testimony be taken as more accurate than another?

According to a new National Academy of Sciences report,

many factors influence the visual perceptual experience: dim illumination and brief viewing times, large viewing distances, duress, elevated emotions, and the presence of a visually distracting element such as a gun or a knife. Gaps in sensory input are filled by expectations that are based on prior experiences with the world. Prior experiences are capable of biasing the visual perceptual experience and reinforcing an individual’s conception of what was seen. We also have learned that these qualified perceptual experiences are stored by a system of memory that is highly malleable and continuously evolving, neither retaining nor divulging content in an informational vacuum. The fidelity of our memories to actual events may be compromised by many factors at all stages of processing, from encoding to storage to retrieval. Unknown to the individual, memories are forgotten, reconstructed, updated, and distorted. Therefore, caution must be exercised when utilizing eyewitness procedures and when relying on eyewitness identifications in a judicial context.

— Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identification, by the Committee on Scientific Approaches to Understanding and Maximizing the Validity and Reliability of Eyewitness Identification in Law Enforcement and the Courts, National Research Council.

Certainly Johnson’s later observations involved larger distances than the encounter in the store as well as “duress, elevated emotions, and the presence of a visually distracting element such as a gun,” but that in itself would not be a reason to discount his testimony. This is where corroborating evidence comes into play, and unfortunately for Johnson (and for Brown’s supporters) the available evidence appears only to corroborate his version of events before he and Brown encountered Wilson.

Back to the main topic, this question — if Brown didn’t rob the store, who did? — brings up further, and more difficult, questions.

Can the press, and the family, and his most fervent supporters acknowledge that Michael Brown actually (rather than “allegedly”) robbed that store? If so, can they acknowledge the possibility that, flushed with the adrenaline and endorphin rush of a successful robbery that included a brief physical altercation, Brown might have either a) reacted out of fear of being arrested or b) considered himself capable of intimidating a police officer?

If Brown’s supporters persist in portraying him as completely innocent in this matter — indeed as some sort of paragon who was incapable of belligerence — then it is unlikely that they will ever be able to admit (or possibly even consider) that the other grand jury findings — that Brown was shot first while tussling with Wilson through the window of the police vehicle; ran away bleeding; turned around; and moved back toward Wilson — may be exactly as presented. I don’t know if that would be considered cognitive dissonance, or a refusal to think anything but the best about someone whose side they have taken.

But the “gentle giant” narrative seems to hinge on the lingering doubt among his supporters that Michael Brown actually robbed that store, in which case the unanswered question — if not him, then who? — seems to be apt, if not important.

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