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Feds won't file civil rights charges against Darren Wilson for Michael Brown killing

St. Louis County
  1. The Obama administration won't press civil rights charges against former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson.
  2. The Justice Department investigated whether Wilson willfully violated Michael Brown's civil rights when he shot the unarmed black 18-year-old in August.
  3. A grand jury previously decided not to press charges against Wilson in a separate investigation.
  4. A broader federal investigation into civil rights violations by Ferguson police found a pattern of racial bias at the department.

Civil rights violations are really difficult to prove in court

The federal investigation into Wilson always looked unlikely to result in charges, particularly compared to local officials' investigation into the Brown shooting.

The local investigation, carried out through a grand jury, looked at whether Wilson committed a crime such as murder or manslaughter by shooting Brown.

But the federal investigation is looking into whether Wilson willfully violated Brown's civil rights by shooting him — a much higher legal bar to climb, since the intent would be very difficult to prove. Prosecutors would have to show that Wilson knew it was wrong to fire but did so anyway.

The Justice Department noted that, "although there are several individuals who have stated that Brown held his hands up in an unambiguous sign of surrender prior to Wilson shooting him dead, their accounts do not support a prosecution of Wilson." The report also reiterated what St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch previously said — that some of the eyewitnesses that claimed Brown had his hands up weren't credible.

The Justice Department report laid this out piece by piece. The physical evidence suggested Brown reached into Wilson's car during their physical altercation and, very likely, attempted to grab the officer's gun. The most credible witnesses agreed that Brown moved toward Wilson before the officer fired his final shots — and there simply wasn't enough evidence, especially given the struggle at the car, that Wilson wasn't justified in fearing for his life when he fired the shots that killed Brown. Although some credible witnesses suggested Brown raised his hands up before he died, witnesses who disputed major parts of Wilson's side of the story were discredited when they changed their accounts.

Attorney General Eric Holder, who heads the Justice Department, said that the federal government's inability to prosecute Wilson doesn't exonerate the Ferguson Police Department of the broader pattern of racial bias investigators found.

"Although some community perceptions of Michael Brown’s tragic death may not have been accurate," Holder said on Wednesday, "the widespread conditions that these perceptions were based upon, and the climate that gave rise to them, were all too real."

Read the Justice Department's full report on the Brown shooting:

Further reading: Grand juries usually don't indict police officers. Should they be changed?