It’s ‘Civil Suit’ Time. But Do Michael Brown’s Parents Have a Strong Case?

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In light of the grand jury’s decision to shield Officer Darren Wilson from criminal charges, The Root asked a legal expert to weigh in on the civil lawsuit and the civil rights charge that Brown’s parents and the Justice Department could pursue.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on November 25, 2014.

Monday the public learned that a Missouri grand jury found that it did not have sufficient evidence to indict Michael Brown’s shooter, police Officer Darren Wilson.

People are angry and disappointed, but the legal system may not be through with Wilson—or the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department that employs him (although reportedly not for long).

There are “wrongful death” lawsuits that can be filed against Wilson, as well as the civil rights violation charge that the Justice Department can bring against him and regarding the overall conduct of the Ferguson Police Department.

Eric Guster, an attorney and legal expert based in Birmingham, Ala., helped The Root sort through all the pending legal matters that Wilson might find himself embroiled in even after dodging a criminal charge Monday.

1. Even though Wilson was not charged with Brown’s death, can Brown’s parents file a civil suit against Officer Darren Wilson and the Ferguson Police Department?

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Yes. Brown’s parents—Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr.—can sue Wilson for damages in a civil trial, according to Guster. Instead of having to prove Wilson’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt—such as is the case in criminal proceedings—they’ll have to prove that there is a “preponderance of the evidence” to hold Wilson liable for damages in the wrongful death of their son.

For context, Oscar Grant’s mother (a handcuffed Grant was shot in the back by a transit officer in Oakland, Calif.) was reportedly awarded $1.3 million—and his daughter $1.5 million—when they filed a civil suit against the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. The payment settled a “wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit” filed against BART in federal court by Grant’s family in 2009, a CBS affiliate in San Francisco reported.

2. Since Wilson was not charged, will that influence how strong a case Brown’s parents will have if they decide to file a civil lawsuit against Wilson?

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In terms of how successful a possible civil suit might be for Brown’s parents, Guster explained that it would make things easier if Wilson had been brought up on criminal charges. But even though Wilson was not indicted, it doesn’t mean Brown’s parents should be discouraged from pursuing that route.  

“It’s always easier to have a civil case filed where there is a criminal case as well,” Guster said.

“[Although] the fact that he is not convicted of a criminal case does not necessarily bear weight on the civil case because of the lower burden of proof [needed],” he added.

3. Can the Ferguson Police Department be named in a potential “wrongful death” lawsuit filed by Brown’s parents as well? 

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Yes. Guster explained that he sees two potential culprits in a civil suit involving Brown’s shooting: Wilson and the Ferguson Police Department.

“When a civil lawsuit is filed, you file it against every entity that may bear responsibility,” Guster said. “In a case like this, Brown’s parents would sue Darren Wilson for the death, and the Police Department for the negligent supervision [and employment] of Wilson.”

Money matters in civil suits because a judge decides if the plaintiff should receive an award for his oro her claims. And because Wilson probably doesn’t have a lot of money—like, say, O.J. Simpson did—a suit against the Ferguson Police Department would likely be more fruitful (like the settlement Oscar Grant’s mother and daughter received from BART).  

“In cases like this, you would go after the deep pockets—the city of Ferguson—and anyone else who was responsible for Darren Wilson’s employment,” Guster said.

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WATCH: Diana Debates ‘Black Female Privilege’

The Root staffers unpack reactions to the use of this phrase in a recent piece. What can this conversation teach us about the sensitivities that surround discussions of race, gender, fear and power?

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on August 28, 2014.

It struck some people as an oxymoron. They couldn’t wrap their minds around how the words “black women” and “privilege” were being used in the same sentence in this article, let alone how they were being used to describe anything having to do with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. That I said Brown’s death made me more aware of the privileges I hold as a black woman seemed “ahistorical” to some readers and treasonous to others.

They—understandably—wanted me to make mention of how we black women, too, are subjected to police brutality, and how we are often on the receiving end of senseless acts of violence inflicted upon us by ordinary civilians. Take Renisha McBride’s death in Detroit, Marissa Alexander’s ordeal down in Florida, or Marlene Pinnock, the middle-aged woman who was pummeled on the side of a California highway by a white cop. Josie Pickens, writing at The Root, summed up these sentiments here, asserting that the degree to which black people protest about injustices committed against black men is often much more heightened, visible and impassioned than it is when the victims are women.This disparity, she argued, created a false sense of security among black women and could even put us in danger.

Taking into consideration all of the responses—and recognizing the many harms suffered by black women in this country because of racism, sexism and, while we’re at it, sexual orientation—I still maintain that I enjoy certain benefits as a woman that evade black men. One commentator contributed to the discussion in an interesting way, tweeting, “While many [black females] would have [black men] admit to patriarchy, they rarely consider the privilege of being alive.” Another woman who shared my point of view said, “I think my black female privilege has allowed me to challenge authority with zero fear of execution.”

I’m curious about what is behind what felt like a gag order issued by some commenters on any reference to the advantages I believe I enjoy as a black woman. I reject the presumption that black women are somehow negating the trials and tribulations we experience when we speak about, and acknowledge, the advantages that our gender affords us. Does black culture even allow us the space and agency to explore the upsides of our black womanhood?

In The Root TV video above, I discuss some of these ideas with editorial fellow Diamond Sharp:

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Michael Brown’s Death Reopened My Eyes to My Privileges as a Black Woman

black female privilege

Sometimes you have to subscribe to a different set of rules when co-existing alongside black men.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on August 20, 2014.

I didn’t fully understand the privileges that I enjoy as a black female in America until a recent incident, punctuated by the shooting death of Michael Brown, made it all the more clear.

Yep, you read that right—I’m touting my privileges as a black female, not my woes, which are typically what are written about and expressed.

I’ll start with the incident: Long story short—my black male friend and I were having drinks at a restaurant when I got into a pretty saucy exchange with an older, drunken man about the venue’s music. In an inebriated, four-minute slur of sorts, he stuttered on and on and desperately tried to prove some insignificant point. Boy, did I feel chastised and harangued—but more importantly, I was annoyed.

My friend waited longer than I liked to tell the guy to essentially stop speaking to us. “Enough,” my friend said, but in my opinion, that “enough” was several minutes too late. Plus, his delivery lacked the scorn I felt this drunken man deserved.

My friend explained to me his rule of thumb: that I should have ended the conversation with the stranger the minute it became antagonistic. He also said that his potential involvement—particularly as a black man—might not have ended peacefully or justly. He suggested that in the future, I should try to look the other way if a person who isn’t in a clear state of mind tries to speak with me. As luck would have it, the drunken man returned, and after ignoring him, I was able to see that my friend’s advice worked.

That wasn’t the first time I realized that black men in this country have had to learn to navigate these waters much differently from how I’ve had to as a black woman. Black men live by a different set of rules that at times fly in the face of how I tend to live my life.

By nature, I am never opposed to ruffling a few feathers in the name of fairness and doing what’s right. I speak up for myself—at times emphatically. Injustice makes my insides churn, and I’ve spoken up many a time when I felt that a police officer was being overzealous or condescending or exerting power out of pure ego and not necessity. (Much as I imagine Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and Michael Brown did—to varying degrees—when they were approached by white civilians or confronted by white law enforcement.)

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