Monday the public learned that a Missouri grand jury found that it did not have sufficient evidence to indict Michael Brown’s shooter, police Officer Darren Wilson.
People are angry and disappointed, but the legal system may not be through with Wilson—or the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department that employs him (although reportedly not for long).
There are “wrongful death” lawsuits that can be filed against Wilson, as well as the civil rights violation charge that the Justice Department can bring against him and regarding the overall conduct of the Ferguson Police Department.
Eric Guster, an attorney and legal expert based in Birmingham, Ala., helped The Root sort through all the pending legal matters that Wilson might find himself embroiled in even after dodging a criminal charge Monday.
1. Even though Wilson was not charged with Brown’s death, can Brown’s parents file a civil suit against Officer Darren Wilson and the Ferguson Police Department?
Yes. Brown’s parents—Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr.—can sue Wilson for damages in a civil trial, according to Guster. Instead of having to prove Wilson’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt—such as is the case in criminal proceedings—they’ll have to prove that there is a “preponderance of the evidence” to hold Wilson liable for damages in the wrongful death of their son.
For context, Oscar Grant’s mother (a handcuffed Grant was shot in the back by a transit officer in Oakland, Calif.) was reportedly awarded $1.3 million—and his daughter $1.5 million—when they filed a civil suit against the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. The payment settled a “wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit” filed against BART in federal court by Grant’s family in 2009, a CBS affiliate in San Francisco reported.
2. Since Wilson was not charged, will that influence how strong a case Brown’s parents will have if they decide to file a civil lawsuit against Wilson?
In terms of how successful a possible civil suit might be for Brown’s parents, Guster explained that it would make things easier if Wilson had been brought up on criminal charges. But even though Wilson was not indicted, it doesn’t mean Brown’s parents should be discouraged from pursuing that route.
“It’s always easier to have a civil case filed where there is a criminal case as well,” Guster said.
“[Although] the fact that he is not convicted of a criminal case does not necessarily bear weight on the civil case because of the lower burden of proof [needed],” he added.
3. Can the Ferguson Police Department be named in a potential “wrongful death” lawsuit filed by Brown’s parents as well?
Yes. Guster explained that he sees two potential culprits in a civil suit involving Brown’s shooting: Wilson and the Ferguson Police Department.
“When a civil lawsuit is filed, you file it against every entity that may bear responsibility,” Guster said. “In a case like this, Brown’s parents would sue Darren Wilson for the death, and the Police Department for the negligent supervision [and employment] of Wilson.”
Money matters in civil suits because a judge decides if the plaintiff should receive an award for his oro her claims. And because Wilson probably doesn’t have a lot of money—like, say, O.J. Simpson did—a suit against the Ferguson Police Department would likely be more fruitful (like the settlement Oscar Grant's mother and daughter received from BART).
“In cases like this, you would go after the deep pockets—the city of Ferguson—and anyone else who was responsible for Darren Wilson’s employment,” Guster said.
4. What’s the likelihood that the Justice Department will bring a civil rights charge against Darren Wilson? Early reports suggest that it won’t because there’s not enough evidence.
Though he wasn’t charged at the state level, the Department of Justice can still elect to bring civil rights charges against Wilson, similar to how the feds held on to key pieces of evidence stemming from the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin when they were considering bringing charges against George Zimmerman.
Lest we forget, the Justice Department conducted its own autopsy of Brown’s body and Attorney General Eric Holder dispatched a team of federal detectives to Ferguson to conduct a separate investigation into his shooting. The Justice Department recently issued a press statement saying that its investigation was “ongoing” but it couldn’t provide a “specific time line for concluding those inquiries.”
However, Guster doesn’t think it will amount to anything. “It is almost impossible for the Department of Justice to bring charges against Wilson,” Guster explained, because “the burden of proof is extremely high in reference to a civil rights violation.
“For a civil rights violation,” he continued, the feds would have to prove that “Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown because he is black. That is the extra requirement needed for the case to be a civil rights violation in these circumstances.
“They must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Brown was shot because he was black,” Guster stressed.
5. What are some of the legal obstacles that Brown’s parents will face if they decide to go forward with a civil suit?
Oscar Grant was shot in the back while he was in custody and handcuffed, lying facedown on the platform of a train station. Several witnesses captured his last moments alive on video—including the fatal shot that took his life.
Brown’s alleged resistance during the altercation with Wilson, on the other hand, will be critical to whether his parents will win a civil suit.
“There are several accounts that there was a fight at the car, which, as the trial goes forward, would make it harder for a civil suit to be successful,” Guster explained. “On the other hand, if the family has reliable witnesses to show that Michael Brown was surrendering to the police officer when he was shot and killed, then the civil suit may be successful.”
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features video interviews with scarily insightful people. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.