A St. Louis family court official responded to two separate media requests for Michael Brown's juvenile records today, stating that the teen had no serious felonies at the time of his killing, or at any time prior. This followed claims that the public interest in the case overrides Missouri's strict laws protecting the privacy of minors' records.
Cynthia Harcourt, a lawyer for St. Louis County Juvenile Officer Kip Seeley, said that Brown was never found delinquent of the juvenile equivalent of any Class A or B felony charges, the St. Louis Dispatch Post reported. Together the two categories account for most serious crimes — from second-degree murder and first-degree robbery [Class A], to voluntary manslaughter, second-degree robbery and first-degree burglary [Class B].
Lesser offenses — if any — would remain confidential, but Harcourt slammed the media for seeking out the records in the first place.
Brown was killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, sparking weeks of outrage and a massive police response to protests, in a case that has captured national attention and become an emblem for the deeply rooted tensions between police and minority communities, and young black men in particular.
The Ferguson teenager, who turned 18 in May, was unarmed at the time of his death and had no criminal record as an adult. Any criminal records he might have had as a minor are strictly guarded in Missouri and the Brown family's lawyer, Benjamin Crump, has declined to talk about them.
But people want to know — so much so that two separate petitions were filed in St. Louis County family court, demanding to know whether Brown ran into trouble with the law as a minor.
Charles Johnson, a conservative, California-based blogger, filed a lawsuit last month — and started a GoFundMe fundraising campaign to go with it — following tips he said he got from police sources that Brown did indeed have a juvenile record, and alleging he might have been involved in a second-degree murder case.
Johnson, who also repeated rumors that Brown was a member of the Crips, said that the release of Brown's records was about the "First Amendment."
He also argued that Brown's right to privacy expired with his death. In a blog post about the lawsuit, Johnson wrote that Brown's record "ought to be freely available given that he is dead and therefore has no right to privacy remaining."
"Press reports say that Brown has no 'adult arrest record' but how could he have one? He was only 18 for a few months," he continued. "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."
After today's hearing, Johnson took to Twitter to defend himself against perceived charges of "character assassination" leveled against him by the Brown family attorney and questioned the court official's choice of words.
In a separate petition, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had also asked the court to release any juvenile records it may have relating to Brown. The Post-Dispatch's lawyer also argued in court that the primary reason to keep records confidential — to protect young adults from the stigma of a criminal record — expired when Brown was killed.
"The court filing is just one avenue of many in our continuing commitment to cover a significant news story for our community," Adam Goodman, the paper's deputy managing editor, wrote in a statement. "We have taken this action as a professional news organization, independently and not in conjunction with any other organization, as we seek to report facts and not rely on innuendo or speculation."
But critics have dismissed the requests for Brown's records as besides the point and irrelevant to the issue at hand — police brutality and the death of an unarmed man.
The question of whether Brown had a troubled past has become the subject of heated speculation since his death, as critics of the protests sparked by the teenager's death have attempted to shift the debate to whether Brown "had it coming" and launching into lengthy debates over his inherent "goodness," or lack of it.
A New York Times article claiming that Brown was "no angel" sparked widespread indignation and spiraled into a social media campaign — under the hash tag #ideservedit. Earlier on, the hash tag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown went viral, and had teens posting photos of themselves in suits or graduation gowns, juxtaposed with others in street clothes, throwing gang signs, or engaging in "bad" activities like smoking or drinking, and asking how media would choose to portray them if they were shot by police.
The battle over the representation of victims like Brown is hardly a new one — with similar images and debates surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin before him.
Ferguson officials also got into this game of spin — as if whether Brown was a "good" or "bad" kid really had anything to do with his death.
On the day it released Wilson's name, almost a week after the shooting, the local police department also put out a video allegedly implicating Brown in a robbery at a local liquor store. Police then gave contradicting accounts on whether Wilson was even responding to that call when he chased and killed Brown. The local community, however, was outraged by what they called a pointless attempt at "character assassination" and angry protesters poured back onto the streets reigniting tensions that had just begun to dissipate.
Police cited Brown as a primary suspect in the robbery — sparking angry protests from local residents who accused the department of running a "smear campaign" against the teen to justify the killing.
Some Ferguson residents were skeptical of the video's authenticity, while others argued that petty theft is no excuse for "execution."
"Not only did you murder him but now you draw up this story?" Mark Evans, a 43-year-old father of three teens, told VICE News then. "I'm sure they took a lot of time to contemplate and put the story together. We were waiting to see what they would come up with to justify this, and this doesn't justify anything anyway."
Evans was one of several witnesses who heard the shots that killed Brown and then went to where the teenager was shot in the street. He suggested that by moving the "crime scene" over to the convenience store, police had tried to take attention away from witnesses' accounts of Brown dropping to his knees with his hands raised when he was shot.
"It's sad to say it wouldn't shock me if they let [Wilson] loose, because he's one of their own," he added. "But remember, they slaughtered him. One, two shots maybe, but they slaughtered him."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi