The Absurd Legality of Officer Wilson's Get Out of Jail Free Card

November 25th 2014

Kristal High

Many factors compound the tragedy of Mike Brown’s death – the needless loss of a young boy’s life; the ostensible fear on the part of law enforcement that justified the use of deadly force where none was required; the unfortunate but all too common complications of race in determining what constitutes a “legitimate threat.” The list goes on, but of all the things that make Mike Brown’s death, and the subsequent lack of indictment for Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson, all the more disheartening is that this didn’t have to happen. 

The grand jury decision resulted in a clear reading of Missouri’s law, despite disappointing throngs of people who feel like this case is yet another example of how cavalier society still is when it comes to discarding the lives of Black boys. Although Officer Wilson’s actions could’ve clearly passed muster as murder or manslaughter, depending on the state of mind the grand jury ascribed to him at the time of Mike Brown’s killing, another part of the Missouri code, which details when a police officer can use deadly force, relieved him of all responsibility for his actions.

According to Missouri Revised Statutes §563.046:
A law enforcement officer in effecting an arrest or in preventing an escape from custody is justified in using deadly force only
(1) When such is authorized under other sections of this chapter; or
(2) When he reasonably believes that such use of deadly force is immediately necessary to effect the arrest and also reasonably believes that the person to be arrested
(a) Has committed or attempted to commit a felony;
(b) Is attempting to escape by use of a deadly weapon; or
(c) May otherwise endanger life or inflict serious physical injury unless arrested without delay.

Therein lies the rub. After months of investigation and days of grand jury deliberation, Darren Wilson walked NOT because he didn’t kill Mike Brown. The grand jury didn’t lack evidence supporting Officer Wilson’s responsibility for this untimely death. Instead, Missouri law excused Officer Wilson’s use of deadly force to kill Mike Brown as a sort of self-defense necessary to effect an arrest. He had a get out of jail free card, akin to the oft-discussed Florida’s stand your ground laws which many expected George Zimmerman’s lawyers to invoke during the Trayvon Martin trial (they didn’t, and Zimmerman was acquitted on plain old self-defense grounds).

There is a painful, yet necessary lesson to understand in all this:  laws are not always fair or just, but they are laws, nonetheless, and the only way to impact laws is to vote. There is an enduring political truism in life: “if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”  For us, living in a representative democracy means that we can vote for people to represent our interests. If, however, we do not vote, we should not be surprised if our needs and wants get swept under the table, for lack of having a representative ‘at the table’ to speak up for us and what we need.

Ferguson, Missouri has never had a black mayor and only has one black member on its six person city council. This is despite it being a city with a population that is more than 60 percent black. Make no mistake: voting has a lot to do with this. 

The sadness and anger about Mike Brown’s death is palpable right now as people from all over the country are assembled in the streets and in front of their television sets taking in the news of the day. Beyond the protest, beyond the fury, beyond the fires burning around Ferguson, beyond the rage, change will only come if people hold accountable the policymakers who wield legislation that impact their daily lives.

We cannot stop bias, or a person’s racism, but we can certainly cause people to pause before they take a life, especially if they realize that the law is not on their side when they claim self-defense anytime they face an “other” and have a loaded firearm in their possession.

It is not a perfect solution. It requires sustained engagement and delayed gratification, but voting is the best chance we have to prove the value of life and stop the senseless killing of young boys of color across the country.

The killing of Mike Brown is no doubt a tragedy, but if his death can be a catalyst for greater civic engagement and voter mobilization, then his passing will not have been in vain. 

You can register to vote at OurTime.org.