On Ferguson


I have been involved in discussions around the house on “what happened in Ferguson,” especially in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision last night not to charge Officer Darren Wilson in connection with the slaying of Michael Brown.

Although the discussions in the Telgenhof house might be a little different, with a Republican prosecuting attorney father and kids who range politically from disinterested to left leaning to near anarchist.  Then again maybe it’s the same discussion going on everywhere.

Maybe it’s because I’m a prosecutor but I appreciated the fact that during the investigation and grand jury deliberations, St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch did not leak facts to the press.  He was castigated by the Nancy Graces of the world, but his job wasn’t to please them, it was to try his best to get it right.

The problem with his reasoned approach was that it left room for people to fill the vacuum with their theories.  It gave time for people to donate money to a Darren Wilson defense fund, even though they had no idea whether or not he had acted appropriately.  It also gave time for racist social media comments like Brown was a “thug” and “had it coming.”  And it also gave time for Al Sharpton to organize a Justice for Michael Brown weekend, without knowing what he may or may not have done.

Again, all without knowing any of the facts.

I believe it is equally wrong to jump to the conclusion that Brown was a thug and had it coming as it is to assume that Wilson was a racist who intentionally killed him without justification.

Now many would say that there is nothing that justifies the shooting of an unarmed man.  The law says otherwise.  In 1985 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an officer may use deadly force on a suspect when he has probable cause to believe the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.

There is no requirement that the suspect have a gun, and in determining whether the suspect posed a threat, one looks to the situation as it presented itself to the officer.

While McCulloch didn’t release any information prior to the grand jury decision, without waiting for a court order, he immediately released all of the information, thousands and thousands of pages, from the 25 days of testimony and evidence presented.

Before the evidence was made public, many believed that Brown was shot in the back as he ran away from Wilson.  That was not supported by the evidence, including an autopsy procured by the Brown family.

The evidence supported Wilson’s claim that he first struggled with Brown at his patrol car.  Brown’s DNA was found on Wilson’s pistol, uniform pants and shirt.

Wilson testified that Brown ran from the vehicle and that he did not shoot until Brown was coming back toward him.  This is supported by the physical evidence which showed that Brown’s dead body was found approximately 150 feet from Wilson’s vehicle but blood spatter patterns were also found farther away from the vehicle.

In the end, agree or disagree, it appears the jurors believed Wilson and an eyewitness who didn’t live in the area, but was there working, who said he saw Brown running toward the officer “full charge” as he was shot.

Some will criticize the prosecution for not getting an indictment, since it’s been said that a good prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.  It’s obvious, however, that wasn’t McCulloch’s goal.  He wanted to get it right.

Had he wanted only an indictment, McCulloch could’ve only presented the testimony of witnesses who refuted Wilson’s version of events.  It is very, very rare to call so many witnesses and present so much evidence to a grand jury.

McCulloch’s goal was obviously to get all of the evidence in front of the jury, as would happen at a trial, and let them decide whether they believed that Wilson acted improperly.  McCulloch’s goal was what every prosecutor’s goal should be – justice.

It’s been said that sports don’t develop character, they reveal it.  I believe that so too, this case and the reaction to it, reveal where our country is at in race relations.

We still have a long ways to go.  It’s scary to see the conclusions that people jumped to immediately, largely due to the race of the people involved as well as the race of the people drawing the conclusions.

When asked about the existence of “white privilege” recently, talk show host Bill O’Reilly recently said anyone who works hard, gets educated and is honest can make it in America.  In support, he said that the most powerful man and woman in the world are both black, President Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

In the same interview, however, he acknowledged that collectively blacks in America carry more of a burden than whites.

When talking about race in this country, many make statements such as “it’s not about race, it’s about poverty.”  The 2010 census revealed, however, that blacks who earn over $75,000 per year on average live in poorer neighborhoods than whites that earn $40,000 per year.  In fact, in only two of 50 metropolitan areas do average income whites live in poorer neighborhoods than affluent blacks.

There is something more going on here.  Obama and Oprah aside, race is still a difficult issue in America.

Many ask the question, if a black officer had shot an unarmed white male, would he be treated differently by the law?  Others ask if the media would pay so much attention to that situation, or if there would be any protests or outcry.

I don’t know.  But it appears that the police investigation, the actions of the prosecutor and of the grand jury, which included three African-Americans, were based upon the law.

For a just result, we rely on the system and the process.

At the end of the day, I hope that Ferguson’s legacy is that our legal system can judge a case based on facts and not on skin color.

About Allen Telgenhof

Allen Telgenhof is the Charlevoix County Prosecuting Attorney; he has been an attorney since 1989 and a high school baseball coach since 2005. Graduated from Clio High School, Michigan State University and Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Proud father of Ty, Ally, Will and Lou and husband to Erin.
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