Justice Dept. to launch civil rights probe into Ferguson police force

Juvenile court hears arguments to release Michael Brown’s files

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CLAYTON, Mo. — As a child, Michael Brown was never found delinquent of the juvenile equivalents of Missouri’s most serious felony charges, and was not facing any at the time he died, a court official said Wednesday.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch filed a petition Aug. 22 asking a judge in the St. Louis County Family Court to open any juvenile records on Mr. Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old shot to death last month by a Ferguson police officer. A conservative blogger from California had separately requested that the records be opened. Police had said earlier that Mr. Brown had no adult criminal record.

In another development, Attorney General Eric Holder this week will launch a broad civil rights investigation into the Ferguson Police Department, The Washington Post reported,

The investigation, which could be announced as early as this afternoon, will be conducted by the Justice Department’s civil rights division and follow a process similar to that used to investigate complaints of profiling and the use of excessive force in other police departments across the country, The Post reported, citing two federal law enforcement officials.

Mr. Brown was African-American. The white Ferguson police officer claimed he acted in self-defense. Mr. Brown, who was unarmed, was shot at least six times on the afternoon of Aug. 9.

Mr. Holder’s decision will represent the Obama administration’s most aggressive step to address the Ferguson shooting, which set off days of often-violent clashes between police and demonstrators in the streets of the St. Louis suburb.

The federal officials said the probe will look not only at Ferguson but also at other police departments in St. Louis County. Some, like Ferguson, are predominantly white departments serving majority-African-American communities, and at least one department invited the Justice Department to look at its practices. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the pending inquiry.

As for the bid to open Mr. Brown’s juvenile records, the petitions went to a hearing Tuesday with Judge Ellen Levy Siwak of St. Louis County Family Court, who took the case under advisement. But disclosures during and after the hearing Tuesday put to rest claims by blogger Charles Johnson and others that Mr. Brown was facing a murder charge at the time he was shot to death.

Cynthia Harcourt, a lawyer for a St. Louis County Juvenile officer, Kip Seely, noted that some juvenile records and proceedings are open to the public: those that concern crimes that would be Class A or B felonies if a juvenile had been charged as an adult. But there were none for Mr. Brown. After the hearing, Ms. Harcourt said in an interview that Mr. Brown was not facing any Class A or B charges when he died, either.

Class A felonies include second-degree murder and first-degree robbery; the penalties in adult court range from 10 years in prison to death. Class B felonies include voluntary manslaughter, second-degree robbery and first-degree burglary, with a maximum penalty of five to 15 years.

It is not known whether Mr. Brown had ever been accused of lesser offenses. Class C felonies, for example, which include involuntary manslaughter and second-degree assault, would become open only if there were two previous adjudications for class A, B or C felonies. That was not the case with Mr. Brown.

Joseph Martineau of Lewis Rice & Fingersh, attorney for the Post-Dispatch, acknowledged to Judge Siwak that some juvenile court records are confidential under Missouri law. But he argued that the primary reason to keep them confidential — to protect a child from entering adulthood with the stigma of a criminal record — expired with Mr. Brown’s death. He said Judge Siwak had the discretion to open files, and said there was heavy public interest in the details of Mr. Brown’s life.

Mr. Martineau pointed to a general lack of transparency surrounding the police response to, and investigation of, the shooting. He said opening the juvenile files would “dispel speculation that occurs when proceedings are not open.”

Ms. Harcourt derided the claim as pure media curiosity that should not lead the judge to open any confidential records. She said that if there were records of felonies, they would have been made public. She acknowledged that Judge Siwak could open files further but implored her not to do so, saying the integrity of the family court was on the line. And she said the court of public opinion weighing facts in the Brown case did not require the release of confidential records.

The parents of Michael Brown were represented at the hearing by their attorney, Anthony Gray. Although he did not speak during the hearing, outside the courtroom he blasted the Post-Dispatch and Mr. Johnson for requesting the juvenile files. There was one reason, and one only, that the organizations wanted to view the files, he said: “The character assassination of Mike Brown.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor Gilbert Bailon disputed the idea that seeking any juvenile records was designed to impugn Mr. Brown. “We are a news organization that pursues facts, which are the basis of coverage. Innuendo and speculation through various forms of media have raised questions about whether Michael Brown had a criminal record. We are seeking to find those facts without prejudgment or bias.”

“It is ironic that today’s new information appears favorable to Michael Brown by stating he had no record of adult or serious juvenile crimes, yet some have characterized the pursuit of that information as damaging to Michael Brown,” Mr. Bailon said.


United States - North America - Missouri - Michael Brown

The Washington Post contributed.


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