Witness 41 Ferguson

Did Michael Brown Have A Criminal Record?

Did Michael Brown have a criminal arrest history as a juvenile?

Two news organizations are trying to find out.

Brown was the unarmed black teen who was fatally shot six times in Ferguson, Mo., by a white cop on August 9, which prompted protests and civil unrest, the aftermath of which received 24/7 coverage by the news media and an investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department.

A state grand jury has been convened to determine if Officer Darren Wilson should be indicted for murder or perhaps other charges.

The St. Louis County court system has thus far declined to unseal Brown’s records, if any, under a freedom of information request. Proceedings in juvenile court are ordinarily confidential.

Charles C. Johnson, the editor in chief of the GotNews website is suing to get those alleged records released. A court hearing on this request is scheduled for Wednesday. Johnson claims that two separate law enforcement sources told him that Brown had a criminal record. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has also filed a petition with the court to obtain the release “of any juvenile court records it may have relating to Michael Brown.”

Johnson gave his reasoning for the lawsuit:

…To find out if those police officers are correct requires seeing Brown’s juvenile arrest record, which ought to be freely available given that he is dead and therefore has no right to privacy remaining… Knowing the truth about Brown’s past will help us gauge the credibility of his parents and family who have called him a ‘gentle giant.’ Brown’s strong-arm robbery of a shopkeeper would seem to put the lie to this narrative but it remains. Brown’s friends — who have changed their story already — are similarly untrustworthy in the accounts they have given.The only thing that we do have is the public record but unfortunately the St. Louis County court doesn’t want it released. It’s irresponsible to keep that information from the public if it changes the public’s mind of the character of Michael Brown…”

John C. Burns, the GotNews lawyer, told the CBS News St. Louis affiliate that “What we’re arguing is that since he is deceased, those documents revert from being confidential, they revert back into the public sphere. Missouri common law applies, and under Missouri common law, court records and virtually all other documents are open to the public.”

Johnson and Burns suggested that there is precedent for the release of juvenile court records: “William L. Halstead, a white, 18-year-old stole a packet of cigarettes. A security guard beat him so hard he broke his neck, became paralyzed, and died 19 days later. Halstead’s juvenile arrest record was released as part of a wrongful death suit filed by his family, much to their protestation.”

You can read the Charles C. Johnson lawsuit to release the Michael Brown juvenile records below, which includes a statement in paragraph 27 as follows: “Plaintiff was given information suggesting that Brown had been charged with second degree murder, while he was a juvenile.”

Apart from the legal technicalities, given the sensitive nature of this case, and that the political establishment seems invested in a particular narrative, it seems likely that the court will at least initially deny Johnson’s request, subject perhaps to an appeal to a higher court.

An arrest is of course a far different outcome than an actual conviction.

That being said, do you think it makes a difference in the case against Officer Wilson it if turns out that Michael Brown has a criminal arrest record? Would the release of the Michael Brown juvie records, if any, serve the public interest?

Update: On September 9, a St. Louis County judge denied the petitions to release Michael Brown’s juvenile records

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