In the aftermath of the Ferguson grand jury’s decision, many commenters and reporters noted that the law made it very difficult for Darren Wilson to be found guilty of murder or any crime, under the circumstances.
If you are upset with the outcome of the case, the argument goes, don’t blame the prosecutor or the grand jury, blame the law.
There is an element of truth to the argument. Self-defense laws in Missouri, and throughout the country, are robust and police officers, in particular, are given a wide degree of latitude.
But ultimately, it’s just a way to pass the buck. Darren Wilson did not escape accountability for shooting Michael Brown dead because of the law. He escaped accountability because, as a society, a majority of us are OK with that outcome.
There are many conflicting accounts of what happened the night Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. Wilson was able to present his account, with little scrutiny, to the grand jury.
But even if you accept Wilson’s account word-for-word, he only gets off because enough people found his actions “reasonable” under the circumstances. Since Wilson used lethal force, he acted “reasonably” if he “reasonably” believed his life was in danger.
What does “reasonable” mean? It means whatever we say it means. Ultimately our answer of what reasonable conduct entails is not defined by law, but a reflection of society’s majoritarian norms. These norms can and do change. For example, women asserting self-defense against their husbands used to be prohibited from discussing prior acts of violence by their husbands in court. Such acts were not viewed as relevant when determining whether a woman’s actions were reasonable under the circumstances. But over time, that changed and prior acts of violence by the husband can be used as part of a successful self-defense claim by a battered spouse.
Was Wilson acting reasonably? He testified that Brown looked like a demon. A demon is a supernatural being associated with the devil. Is it reasonable for Wilson to perceive Brown, who was actually an 18-year-old human, in this manner? Is it reasonable for such a perception to contribute to fear that ultimately justified taking Brown’s life?
Wilson also testified that as he struck Brown with bullets he appeared to be “bulking up” to “run through the shots.” This seems like a common thing to happen in a science fiction novel. But is it a reasonable interpretation of the threat Brown posed to him, one that could justify continuing to shoot until Brown was struck fatally in the head?
The grand jury, in a flawed process, decided Wilson’s fear was reasonable. Many legal observers, however, think it was very likely Wilson would have been acquitted in an actual trial, and they are probably right.
But it has as much to do with our societal norms around police officers as the law itself. As a society, we are likely to give police officers the benefit of the doubt, even if they claim their victim was a demon who got stronger as he riddled his body with bullets.
There is nothing inherent in the nature of “reasonableness” or the law that makes things that way. In the United Kingdom, for examples, what constitutes a “reasonable” situation for the police to fire a weapon is much different. Many police officers in the U.K. don’t even carry firearms. British citizens are 100 times less likely to be shot by the police than Americans. Faced with a potential threat, British police officers are far more likely to engage in negotiation or use non-deadly force.
But we have a different definition of “reasonable” conduct in the United States. Our definition of that word, as much as any law, is what is keeping Darren Wilson from being held accountable for the killing of Michael Brown.