Following months of protests and public outrage over a host of unanswered questions, the grand jury slated to determine whether Officer Darren Wilson should be charged with a crime in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown may finally be reaching a conclusion.
With the decision expected imminently, here’s everything you need to know about the case that has captured the world’s attention.
1. What’s going on with the grand jury investigation?
Since Aug. 20, the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office has presented evidence to a 12-person panel of citizens that will determine whether or not there is probable cause to charge officer Darren Wilson of any crime in Brown’s death.
In the events leading up to the teen’s Aug. 9 death, Wilson and Brown were caught in a struggle through the window of the officer’s SUV when, according to police, Wilson says Brown attempted to reach for the officer’s gun. Forensic evidence, leaked to the media through unnamed sources, suggested the first shots were fired from inside Wilson’s vehicle. From there, a half-dozen eyewitnesses have said publicly that they saw Brown flee from the SUV to later turn and put his hands up in surrender as Wilson fired the final fatal shots.
Prosecutor Bob McCulloch has said no decision will come sooner than mid- to late-November. But as the projected timeline draws near, attorneys representing Brown’s family said Thursday they believe the grand jury is “reaching the end of the road” on the list of witnesses to testify before the secret panel.
Dr. Michael Baden, the last or among the last witnesses to provide testimony, appeared before the grand jury Thursday to answer questions and provide analysis of the private autopsy that he conducted at the behest of the Brown family in August.
2. What will happen once the grand jury reaches a decision?
For a case that has garnered international attention and has tapped into the frustrations of large swaths of the American public, virtually all parties involved – from community leaders to federal officials – are bracing for rounds of demonstrations to break out, regardless of whether the grand jury decides to indict Wilson.
With fresh protests now seen as a foregone conclusion, both law enforcement officials and representatives supporting the Brown family have publicly appealed for demonstrations to remain non-violent and not to escalate to the levels seen shortly after the teen’s death.
Prosecutor McCulloch said this week his office will notify the public and media once the grand jury has decided whether or not to indict Wilson. Law enforcement officials have agreed to give Brown’s family advanced notice before a decision is announced to the public, their attorney Ben Crump said. But while family members hoping to receive word at least 24-hours ahead of time, authorities have not offered a specific time frame, the family’s attorney added.
Protest groups, for their part, are asking the county prosecutor’s office for a 48-hour advance notice in order to prepare for potential demonstrations in the streets by having supporters in the crowds self-policing any rowdy behavior.
3. How are elected officials and law enforcement agencies preparing?
If crowds end up gathering in the street, authorities have made clear they have the manpower and the weaponry to match many levels of protests.
City, county and state law enforcement officers will combine forces and operate as a “unified command” system, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced in a press conference this week. Nixon said he is prepared to activate the Missouri National Guard in the event of any unrest.
Nixon also said that more than 1,000 area law enforcement officers have received specialized training ahead of the looming verdict, including a two-day training from federal officials on how identify implicit racial bias, Department of Justice officials told msnbc last week.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis County Police Department has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in preparation, buying up fresh supplies of tear gas, smoke grenades, rubber bullets and riot gear. One item on the purchase list is a so-called “hornets nest,” a sting grenade that emits a chemical agent and shoots out rubber bullets once detonated.
4. How is the community of the St. Louis metropolitan area getting ready?
In the last several weeks, community leaders have met with city officials and law enforcement authorities to map out a plan for once a decision drops.
Groups are hosting training sessions of their own, teaching organizers how to spot any potential unrest from within the crowds to mitigate violence even before police get involved. Religious leaders in the region are opening their church doors to act as a “safe house” in hot-spot neighborhoods, staffed with medical and mental health services for demonstrators who need to cool off.
A coalition of local protest groups are calling on law enforcement officials to agree to a set of “rules of engagement,” mandating that the safe houses are treated as a sacred ground and that police only use riot gear when absolutely necessary, and to avoid using armored vehicles, rubber bullets and tear gas entirely.
In a letter to the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office, a group of local school superintendents asked for authorities to wait to announce any decision until after 5 p.m. on weekdays or on the weekends. Ideally, the group wrote, a Sunday announcement would help avoid issues with travel routes to and from school for both students and their parents.
Meanwhile, local gun shops are reporting a spike in arms sales, with owners pointing to the fear and anxiety over the grand jury process in Brown’s case as a leading driver behind the boosted sales.
5. So what does this all mean?
Local elected officials and law enforcement officers have said repeatedly that though they trust their communities plan to engage in peaceful demonstrations, they are weary of out-of-towners who plan to join protests and cause unrest.
In recent weeks, protest groups have met to draw up contingency plans in the event that officer Wilson is not indicted, but the grand jury decision won’t be the end of all things. The Department of Justice still has its own investigation into Brown’s death underway, and there is no indication that federal investigators have reached any final conclusions.
Brown’s parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, this week to gather international support, saying that they are praying for an indictment. Two groups — the Justice for Michael Brown Leadership coalition and the National Action Network — will be welcoming Brown’s parents as they return home from their Geneva trip Friday evening. But as rumors and speculation continue to swirl, all they can do is wait for a final decision.
“The police are getting ready for war when they should be getting ready for a trial,” Ty Pruitt, a cousin and spokesman for Brown’s family, told msnbc last week. “That to me means they’ve already made their decision.”
6. If there are fresh rounds of protests, what will they look like?
In August, full days of peaceful protests unraveled into short bursts of looting and violence at night when police would train assault rifles on demonstrators and fire rounds of rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd. But the protests have evolved since the early days in Ferguson, with groups of dedicated demonstrators continuing to turn out for the better part of the 98 days since Brown’s death. Mayor James Knowles has said that Ferguson officials expect protests to take a different shape this time around, with fewer hard-and-fast lines of police dressed in riot gear in a direct face-off with protesters.
While the main stretch of W. Florissant Ave. in Ferguson served as the epicenter of protests in August, community leaders and city officials are preparing for other actions to take place in front of both the Ferguson Police Department and also miles away in the city of Clayton, where the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office is presenting evidence before the grand jury. Other locations on the radar are in the St. Louis region, particularly the Shaw neighborhood where another black teen was shot and killed by a police officer in October.