The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Officer Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, so Brown never had the chance to tell his side of what happened. But standing next to Brown for much of the time—and observing the fatal shots—was Brown's best friend, Dorian Johnson. Johnson seems to have originated the "hands up, don't shoot" narrative. But Johnson's story constantly changed and diverged from the physical evidence. It seems hard to come to any other conclusion than that Dorian Johnson's version is simply made up.
In this post, I discuss two things: first, Johnson's story about the confrontation at Wilson's car; and, second, Johnson's story about Brown's final fatal encounter with Wilson. Readers of my previous posts—on the fairness of the process, Wilson's testimony, the physical evidence, and Witness 10's corroborating testimony—will be familiar with the general landscape surrounding the shooting.
I. Johnson's story about Mike Brown's initial confrontation with Officer Wilson.
On August 12, three days after Mike Brown was shot, Dorian Johnson (and his attorney) appeared on CNN's Anderson Cooper program. Johnson claimed that he and his friend, Big Mike, were walking down the middle of the street when they were blocked by Officer Wilson, who then just reached out and grabbed Brown by the throat:
[The officer] reached out the window with his left arm. He grabbed on to my friend, Big Mike's throat. And he's trying to pull him in[to] the vehicle. And my friend, Big Mike, very angrily is trying to pull away from the officer. And the officer now is struggling with trying to hold a grip on my friend Big Mike as he's trying to pull away.
Johnson gave another statement about the initial confrontation to the Al Sharpton program on MSNBC:
The door ricocheted off our bodies. . . . It almost knocked the wind out of me. . . .
After the door bounced back on [the officer], . . . it's almost in an instant, his left arm comes out the window. . . . He just stuck his arm, his left arm, out the window and grabbed my friend around the throat. And now my friend, he's angry, he has a frowny face, but my friend is not [an] aggressive person, so he's not trying to go with the officer, he's trying to pull away from the officer. And the officer is pulling him in the vehicle, like's he's trying to pull him through the window. And [Big Mike's] so big, he couldn't pull his body down into the window, so it's more like his body is coming into the window while the officer was pulling on him.
And while there was pulling, he managed to turn around and get loose [of] the officer's hold from his neck. And now the officer is still trying to maintain his grip, hold on him. So now he's grabbing on his shirt, still with his one arm, his left arm, he's trying to grab any grip he can on my friend. . . . Now at this moment, [Big Mike] hands me the cigarillos [stolen from a convenience store]. Like he tells me, hold these. . . . And I'm still standing in the door right when they're doing all this tugging and pulling, not wrestling as they say. It's more like tug and pull because he's trying to pull Big Mike and he's trying to pull away because we really don't understand the manner that the officer is addressing us. . . .
Johnson later testified in the grand jury about the initial confrontation. Here are a few key passages (volume 6, cited by page and line number):
Big Mike and Darren Wilson, the officer, they are doing their tug of war. [Big Mike] passed me off the cigarillos (100:1) . . .
Big Mike's left hand was still … right above the side mirror. His other arm now because of the tug of war pull, the officer's grip come up, from up on his neck, to the shirt collar, to the shoulder, to basically he never let go. . . . [W]ith the officer's left arm, he's out the window grabbing Big Mike's right arm (101:22).
So Johnson's story is that a police officer parked his car right in front of their path and then, while remaining seated, instantly reached out and grabbed the 6′ 5″ Michael Brown by the throat. Further, during this "tug of war," according to Johnson, Brown has the chance to pass off to Johnson stolen cigarillos and brace himself with his left hand to keep from being sucked into the car. Brown, the interested reader will recall, weighed about 300 pounds, roughly 50 more than Wilson.
To my mind, Johnson's story is dubious by this point. But it would be impossible to disprove the story, except that Johnson continues to elaborate—in ways that are inconsistent with the available physical evidence.
For example, Johnson testified before the grand jury that Brown never struck the officer:
Now, [as for Big Mike] touching the officer . . . maybe, because they're pulling each other, but as far as striking the officer, or physically striking the officer, no, I didn't see [that]. . . . No, ma'am, [Big Mike] never had his fist clenched up like in punching manner, so much as trying to grab stuff and push himself off . . . . (107:16).
Like I said, I was standing so close and directly in the doorway with him the whole time pulling away, he never swung his left arm at all or never put the left arm inside the window, anything like that. And because the officer had [Big Mike's] right arm, I'm almost positive that he couldn't like hit the officer because the officer has his right arm (108:1).
This testimony fails to explain how Wilson suffered a clear injury to his right check.
Johnson also claims in his Anderson Cooper interview (just a few days after the shooting) that Brown was hit in the chest by the only shot Wilson fired from inside the car:
And in a minute I heard "I'll shoot, I'm about to shoot." And I'm standing so close to Big Mike and the officer that I look in his window and I see that he has his gun pointed at both of us. And when he fired his weapon, I moved seconds before he pulled the trigger. I saw the fire come out the barrel, and I instantly knew that it was a gun. I looked at my friend, Big Mike, and I saw that he was struck in the chest or up region because I saw blood splatter down his side or his right area.
In his grand jury testimony about a month later—after the autopsy commissioned by the Brown family had been completed (and made known to Johnson (163:14))—Johnson was more circumspect about where the shot hit Brown, while sticking to story that Brown was never in the car:
The bullet came outside the car and struck him [Big Mike]. He was never inside the car and got struck, he was outside the car when the first shot went off. The officer was inside the car . . . but when he shot the gun, [the] bullet traveled outside his car and struck Big Mike in the chest, or I seen blood coming from [there] (106:7).
Johnson also claimed that Brown never came in contact with Wilson's gun:
I never saw, at no time [did] Big Mike's hand touch the gun or anything like that because of the gun was already out drawn (107:11).
Johnson's testimony is inconsistent with the physical evidence. As I discussed Friday, the medical examiner found that the first wound Brown suffered was not a chest wound, but a wound to his right thumb from a close range shot. Moreover, Brown's DNA was found on Officer Wilson's gun (Vol. 19, 182:16) and on the interior left front door panel of Wilson's car (185:9). Johnson's story also fails to account for a bullet hole in the driver's side door from a shot fired inside the car. On the other hand, the DNA expert did not find Wilson's DNA on Michael Brown's shirt (191:15).
Next, Johnson's story, at least as delivered on the Al Sharpton program, was that Wilson, having managed to hold on to the struggling Brown's throat and/or right arm with his left hand while shooting Brown in the chest or thereabouts with his right hand, made the decision to let Brown go:
After the first shot went off, I stepped back and looked at my friend and I see the blood coming down his right arm. . . . He's looking at me and I'm looking at him . . . and the officer lets go. And that's how we were both able to run at the same time, because it's almost like the officer didn't mean to shoot him. But he was trying to stop us from committing no crime at all. . . .
I could tell the officer was in shock because it took him at least two or three minutes after the first shot. It was almost like he had to make a judgment call, I think, about what he had just done . . . .
Now it was almost two or three minutes we was running.
At this point, once again, Johnson's story diverges from both the plausible and the observed. It doesn't seem plausible that an officer who was holding Brown by the throat (or elsewhere) would suddenly let him go and sit in his car for "at least" two or three minutes. And it conflicts with, among other things, the physical evidence that there was no close range shot to Brown's chest area. Finally, with at least a two or three minute head start, Brown should have gotten cleanly away from Wilson and never had a further confrontation. Sadly, that was not to be.
II. Johnson's Story About the Fatal Shots.
Johnson's testimony about the final, fatal shots is likewise unconvincing. And Johnson changed his story over time in an apparent attempt to try to conform with the physical evidence that became available to him.
Three days after the shooting, August 12, Johnson was interviewed by a local television station and alleged that Wilson shot Brown in the back:
I'm looking and watching the officer and he's pursuing my friend now, and he fired another shot. And it struck my friend in the back.
Another clip, this one from the August 12 Al Sharpton program, repeats the shot-in-the-back claim:
By this time, the officer is out the car. . . . And the officer is walking with his gun drawn, but its almost like he couldn't see me. . . . But he's walking in such a way that his vision wasn't even on nobody else but what he was trying to do. And as he got closer, he fired one more shot. That shot struck my friend in the back.
The problem with this story, as the attentive reader will recall, is that the ME was very clear that Brown was not shot in the back. Indeed, even the Brown family's own hired examiner reached this same conclusion—in a news conference that was widely publicized in the media around August 18.
When Johnson ultimately testified to the grand jury about three weeks later, on September 10, his testimony subtly changed to be more ambiguous:
I'm watching the officer, he's walking and Big Mike gets past the third car . . . It was the second shot fired, pow, the officer shot. I don't know if it hit, I wasn't that close to see that it struck Big Mike, but the manner that he jerked and just stopped in his tracks, I sense that he was hit again. . . . The second time [the officer] shot, I didn't know if it hit him or not, but he kind of jerked and that's when he stopped running (Vol. VI, 120:7).
Johnson admitted, under oath, that it did not look like Brown had been hit in the back: "Once the second shot fired off, I see his body do like a jerking movement, not to where it looked like he got hit in his back, but [I] knew, it maybe could have grazed him" (155:19). Johnson did "not know for sure" whether Brown had been hit a second time (122:2). So Johnson clearly changed his story from the highly inflammatory one he gave a few days after the shooting—shot "in the back"—to "unsure" and "maybe could have grazed him" when under oath and aware of autopsy findings.
Johnson's story now moves to its climax: the often-repeated "hands up, don't shoot" narrative. Here's an August 12 version to a local television station:
Then [as he was struck in the back] my friend stopped running. His hands immediately went in the air and he turned around towards the officer face to face. He started to tell the officer that he was unarmed and that "you should stop shooting me." Before he could get his second sentence out, the officer fired several more shots into his head and chest area.
Before the grand jury, a prosecutor asked Johnson whether Brown was running toward the officer as he was finally shot. Johnson answered: "He couldn't get a step off . . . ." (125:4). The prosecution clarified:
Q: And then . . . he doesn't proceed toward the officer?
A: No, ma'am. . . .
A: So from the time he turned around, he did not proceed towards the officer?
A: No, ma'am (156:20).
The prosecutor finally asked Johnson whether it was "possible that [Brown] moved maybe 20, 22 feet toward the officer before he fell?" Johnson replied: "Not 20 to 22, not that far. . . . He was taking a step towards the officer to show him that he didn't have anything."
So Johnson's story was his friend raised his hands in a surrender position, turned around and then, as he was in the process of saying he was unarmed, was gunned down before he had time to move more than a step toward the officer.
The difficulty with this version is that it simply fails to match the physical evidence. With apologies for referring to a bloody photograph—which an unsqueamish reader can view here—a 20 to 22 foot trail of what appeared to be Mike Brown's blood was on the road (next to evidence markers 19 and 20), leading back directly to where Wilson was … and to where Mike Brown's body was fatally shot. That trail of blood shows that Brown was moving towards Wilson for far more than "a step"—and thus the dramatic ending to Johnson's account is simply incredible.
In short, Dorian Johnson's story is not only implausible on critical issues, but also fails to match the physical evidence. In that respect, Johnson's version clearly contrasts with Wilson's testimony and, for example, Witness 10's corroborating testimony. A reader interested in all the facts can make up his own mind. But to my mind, the evidence show that Johnson's "hands up, don't shoot" story is just that—a story made up by Dorian Johnson to obscure what really happened … and to transform his friend from a villain into a victim.