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Troubling lack of transparency in Michael Brown case

Leaks and media reports relying on unnamed sources provide a troubling development in the transparency around an already emotionally visceral investigation.

Leaks and media reports from numerous unnamed sources have pointed to a troubling lack of transparency in the high-profile and emotionally visceral investigation into why a police officer shot and killed an unarmed teen.

Taken together, the new leaks -- published in multiple news outlets over the course of several days -- for the first time seem to lay out the circumstances around the shooting death of Michael Brown from the perspective of the officer who pulled the trigger, Ferguson Police Department veteran Darren Wilson.

The timing of the leaks, which essentially corroborate the notion that Wilson acted out of self-defense when he shot the unarmed teen, offers just a partial snapshot of the incident. It's the latest development in the roll-out of information from authorities that has seemed fumbled and shrouded in secrecy since the hours following Brown’s Aug. 9 death.

The leaks could indicate that officials are simply having trouble maintaining secrecy around the evidence, which is being presenting before a St. Louis County grand jury tasked with determining whether Wilson should be indicted.

Another possibility is that would suggest authorities have purposefully released fragments of information in attempts to sway the court of public opinion with details sympathetic to Wilson’s side of the story.

The Justice Department hinted at the later scenario after Ferguson police officials released surveillance video in August indicating Brown may have stolen cigars from a convenience store minutes before his confrontation with Wilson. The release of the video, supporters of Brown argued, was done with the intent of smearing Brown’s character.

“The department considers the selective release of information in this investigation to be irresponsible and highly troubling,” a Justice Department spokesperson said in a statement. “Since the release of the convenience store footage there seems to be an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case.”

Police say the altercation began when Brown reached through the window of Wilson’s SUV in an attempt to take the officer’s gun. After the first shots were fired from the car, multiple eyewitnesses said they saw Brown away run from vehicle, turn and put his hands up in surrender as Wilson fired the fatal shots.

According to unnamed sources who provided information toThe New York Times, Wilson has testified before the grand jury that he feared for his life during the struggle with Brown. Forensic investigators reportedly found Brown’s blood on Wilson’s gun and uniform and in the interior of his car. Another leak, this one in the Washington Post, said “seven or eight African-American eyewitnesses" who had not previously come forward to the media, corroborated Wilson’s account.

The official autopsy report, obtained by the St. Louis-Post Dispatch, provided forensic analysis suggesting Brown had been shot in the thumb at a close range.

The St. Louis County prosecutor’s office and police department both denied releasing any of the leaked evidence. “As I’ve said in the past, the release of information can have a detrimental effect on that investigation,” county prosecutor Bob McCulloch said in a statement. Shawn McGuire, a spokesperson for St. Louis County police, said in a statement that the department has not divulged information “as we would never discuss any evidence or witnesses in any investigation.”

Meanwhile, attorneys representing Wilson spoke out for the first time to deny they were in possession of any of the disclosed reports and that they were not source of the leaks.

Without much complete or definitive evidence to build on, the series of leaks have only fueled a trial by the public opinion.

Organizers behind the months of protests spurred by Brown's death have said they may map out a contingency plan for the possibility that the leaked information, favorable to Wilson's side of the story, suggests the officer will not be indicted. A decision by the grand jury could come as soon as mid-November. 

Brendan Roediger, assistant professor at St. Louis University School of Law, said he believes government officials are hoping to brace the public to prevent violent protests in the event that Wilson is not charged with a crime.

"I think the leaks are coordinated and I think they are coming from the top and the bottom. I think they are being coordinated by politicians and being approved by law enforcement on the ground," Roediger added. "They are being coached on how to do this because the leaks are too good to not be coached."

The evidence gathered remains locked up behind the doors of the St. Louis County grand jury proceedings.

In convening the grand jury, county prosecutor McCulloch holds a significant amount of power. Because it is not a trial, there is no defense attorney present to provide counter argument. Prosecutors in a grand jury proceeding are allowed to present a greater degree of evidence than in a trial -- hearsay is even admissible. Most crucially, the entire process is designed to be veiled in secrecy until a decision is reached.

“The grand jury is used as a shield rather than a fact-finding tool,” said Eugene O'Donnell, professor of law and police studies at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “We need to see an absolute, detailed, transparent and exhaustive public disclosure about all the evidence being considered there.”

The lack of transparency around the leaks seems consistent with the bungled messaging from local officials at virtually every juncture of Brown's case.

It took Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson 6 days after Brown was killed to reveal the name of his shooter. And instead of calming concerns, the press conference where Wilson's name was announced was overshadowed by the release of the surveillance video purported robbery just hours before Brown was first shot.

Then, 12 days after the shooting, the Ferguson Police Department released a scant and heavily redacted 2-page incident report only after the ACLU filed a lawsuit to obtain the information. By the department’s own policy, officers are required to file a use-of-force report detailing why escalated action was necessary, even in non-fatal events. They haven’t released the report to the public. And according to Yahoo News, such a report on Brown’s death may not even exist. Meanwhile information that is available to the public is locked behind layers of exorbitant fees for journalists.

"There's been an aura of secrecy around everything -- no police report, grand jury held in private," legal analyst Lisa Bloom said on MSNBC. "I have never seen a case go down in the way this one has with such a complete lack of transparency."

Additional reporting by Trymaine Lee