WASHINGTON – Justice Department investigators have all but concluded they do not have a strong enough case to bring civil rights charges against Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., according to law enforcement officials.
When racial tension boiled over in Ferguson after the Aug. 9 shooting, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. traveled to the St. Louis suburb to meet with city leaders and protest organizers in an effort to bring calm. He assured them that the federal government would open a civil rights investigation into the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, but that investigation now seems unlikely to result in any charges.
“The evidence at this point does not support civil rights charges against Officer Wilson,” said one person briefed on the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Justice Department officials are loath to acknowledge publicly that their case cannot now meet the high legal threshold for a successful civil rights prosecution. The timing is sensitive: Tensions are high in greater St. Louis as people await the results of a grand jury’s review of the case.
Many supporters of Brown say they are already convinced there will be no state-level indictment of the officer. Federal officials have wanted to show that they are conducting a full and fair review of the case.
Justice spokesman Brian Fallon said the case remains open and any discussion of its results is premature. “This is an irresponsible report by the Washington Post that is based on idle speculation,” Fallon said in a statement.
Other law enforcement officials interviewed by the Post said it was not too soon to say how the investigation would end. “The evidence we have makes federal civil rights charges unlikely,” one said.
A lawyer for the family of Michael Brown, Benjamin Crump, said he would not comment “on something that is not official.”
The department on Friday announced an agreement with the city of Albuquerque, N.M., intended to overhaul the way its police department uses force, the result of one such civil rights investigation.
At a forum this week organized by the Aspen Institute and the Atlantic, Holder indicated that similar reform could be called for in Ferguson.
Federal law sets a high bar in bringing civil rights charges against a police officer because prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer intended to violate someone’s constitutional rights.
Authorities faced a similar challenge in the investigation of George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. Under federal law for hate crimes, prosecutors have to show that someone has been victimized intentionally because of a racial or other bias.
Law enforcement officials have said privately that there is insufficient evidence to bring federal charges in that case, although the two-year probe technically remains open.