WASHINGTON – Justice Department lawyers will recommend that no civil rights charges be brought against the police officer involved in the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo., after an FBI investigation found no evidence to support charges, law enforcement officials said Wednesday.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and his civil rights chief, Vanita Gupta, will have the final say on whether the Justice Department will close the case against the officer, Darren Wilson. But it would be unusual for them to overrule the prosecutors on the case, who are still working on a legal memo explaining their recommendation.
A decision by the Justice Department would bring to an end to the politically charged investigation of Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Missouri authorities concluded their investigation into Brown’s death in November and also recommended against charges.
But a broader Justice Department civil rights investigation into allegations of discriminatory traffic stops and excessive force by the Ferguson Police Department remains open. That investigation could lead to significant changes at the department, which is overwhelmingly white despite serving a city that is mostly black.
Benjamin L. Crump, a lawyer for Brown’s family, said he did not want to comment on the investigation until the Justice Department made an official announcement.
The lawyer for Wilson did not return calls for comment.
Brown’s death touched off protests and violent clashes between demonstrators and heavily armed police in Ferguson. The incident, along with the death of Eric Garner – an unarmed black man who died after a chokehold by a New York police officer in July – sparked a nationwide discussion about policing, race and the use of deadly force.
President Obama, Holder and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, speaking about the issue in personal terms, said they understood the concern that minority neighborhoods had with the police. Those comments prompted rebukes from some law enforcement groups.
Soon after the shooting, witnesses told reporters Brown had his hands up in a gesture of surrender when he was shot and killed by Wilson on a city street.
The FBI investigation, however, painted a murkier picture. Wilson told investigators Brown tussled with him through the window of his police car and tried to grab his gun, an account supported by bruises and DNA evidence. Two shots were fired during that struggle.
What happened next as the confrontation moved into the street is in dispute. While some witnesses were adamant that Brown had his hands up, some recanted their stories. Wilson testified Brown charged at him, and other witnesses backed up his account.
“I’m backpedaling pretty good because I know if he reaches me, he’ll kill me,” Wilson told a state grand jury, in testimony that investigators said was consistent with what he told the FBI. “And he had started to lean forward as he got that close, like he was going to just tackle me, just go right through me,” Wilson said.
Holder said the Justice Department’s investigation into Brown’s death would be independent from the one conducted by local authorities. While the FBI and local officials conducted some interviews together and shared evidence, the analysis and decision-making were separate. Holder resisted calls from local officials to announce his conclusion alongside the county prosecutor last year, in part because he did not want it to appear as if they had reached their decisions together.
Federal investigators interviewed more than 200 people and analyzed cellphone audio and video, the law enforcement officials said. Wilson’s gun, clothing and other evidence were analyzed at the FBI’s laboratory in Quantico, Va. Though the local authorities and Brown’s family had autopsies done, Holder ordered a separate autopsy, which was conducted by pathologists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s Office at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the officials said.
The federal investigation did not uncover any facts that differed significantly from the evidence made public by the authorities in Missouri late last year, the law enforcement officials said. To bring federal civil rights charges, the Justice Department would have needed to prove that Wilson had intended to violate Brown’s rights when he had opened fire and that he had done so willfully – meaning he knew that it was wrong to fire, but did so anyway.
The Justice Department plans to release a report explaining its decision, though it is not clear when. Dena Iverson, a department spokeswoman, declined to comment on the case Wednesday.