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No Charges For Former Ferguson, Mo., Police Officer in Michael Brown's Death

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In less than two weeks the family of Michael Brown will mark the sixth anniversary of his death, and so will Ferguson, Mo. Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in 2014. The killing set off protests against police violence and clashes between demonstrators and cops. Then a grand jury in St. Louis declined to charge Wilson, who was no longer a cop. And in 2015 the U.S. Department of Justice decided they would not bring federal charges. That has not stopped Brown's family from calling for prosecutors to indict Wilson, and the person they wanted to do just that chose not to yesterday. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell joins us now. Welcome.

WESLEY BELL: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So you were elected in 2018 in large part because you promised to reform the prosecuting attorney's office, and a lot of your supporters had hoped that meant you might bring charges against Wilson. Tell us why you didn't after investigating the case for five months.

BELL: You know, first and foremost, we were elected on a broad platform to bring criminal justice reform, expanding diversion programs, reducing the jail population and, you know - and, with respect to cases in general, approaching them with fairness and equity, ensuring that people who are - you know, if we cannot prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, that we shouldn't be charging people and forcing pleas as we've seen in examples across the country. And so - but in this case, we knew that this was a significant case.

CHANG: Right.

BELL: We know that it matters to people, the family, this community. And so we wanted to give it the fresh set of eyes, a look at it that it deserved. And so we did a five-month investigation with our new conviction and incident and review unit...

CHANG: Right.

BELL: ...A walled-off unit.

CHANG: And what did you need to see that was not there specifically?

BELL: What we needed to see was whether or not, which is the ultimate question of a prosecutor - whether or not we had enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed. Also, in Missouri, we also have the additional burden of disproving a self-defense claim. So we had that double burden in this case. And based on that evidence - and, again, I wasn't around for six years ago during the investigation, so I'm limited in what I can do not only by the investigation but limited by the law of what I can do. And so now at this point, we're looking at the - we looked at the evidence with a fresh set of eyes. And, you know, unfortunately, we just - we don't have the evidence to ethically bring a charge against Darren Wilson.

CHANG: So what do you tell people in your community who still feel that justice has not been served in this case?

BELL: I mean, it's interesting you say that because people - you know, I've heard people say, I don't like your decision. And, you know, my response is I don't like it either. And I understand people are disappointed, and I'm disappointed. We went through this - the evidence - all of this evidence with a fine-tooth comb. And if there was evidence to - that we could - if there was enough evidence to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt, then we would issue it. But we don't. And I made a - I took an oath to follow the law. Sometimes that law is unfair, unfortunately.

And there's things that we need to do in order to correct some of these laws. And there's things that we're trying to do - changes in our office - as a result of this investigation, such as recording grand jury sessions in homicide cases, providing victim services for families because the Brown family did not receive services from this office. They didn't receive the dignity and respect that they deserved.

And so as unfortunate and tragic as it is that we can't bring them the justice that they want, I hope that they can at least - and, again, they seem to at least appreciate that we tried. We met with them. I've looked them in the eye and let them see what we did. But, you know, at the end of the day, this is tragic. And there's a lot of people that are suffering with this.

CHANG: Wesley Bell is the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County. Thank you very much.

BELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.