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

mike brown mother

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?

civil suit 1

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?

civil suit 2

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? 

civil suit 3

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.

Pages: 1 2

Your Black Son: What He Needs to Know about the Zimmerman Acquittal

'Negro boys on Easter morning.' Southside, Chicago, Illinois.  1941 (Russell Lee/Library of Congress)

‘Negro boys on Easter morning.’ Southside, Chicago, Illinois. 1941 (Russell Lee/Library of Congress)

The ‘not guilty’ verdict creates an opportunity to school—and at times, remind—your black sons about history, race, morality and everything in between.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

Editor’s Note: A lengthier version of this article that includes guidance from child psychologists was published at The Root on July 21, 2013.

It’s the question on several parents’ mind: What do I tell my black son about George Zimmerman’s acquittal? Whatever feels right – but here are some guidelines to steer you in the right direction.

The Law Does Not Always Factor In Morality

Son, this is not a referendum on the value of your life. The judicial system is complex and verdicts do not necessarily reflect the moral consensus on any given issue. One of the jurors in the Zimmerman murder trial–Juror B37—initially wanted to write a book about her experiences (she’s not anymore) and in a  dated statement released by her former literary agent, she referenced the dissonance she experienced during the trial as she weighed the evidence, writing that “despite one’s personal viewpoints, it is [important] to follow the letter of the law.”

A few of Juror B37’s peer jurors released a statement distancing themselves from some of  her viewpoints, which demonstrates the diversity that exists among white people, a diversity of opinion that you should be familiar with.

And so while the jurors may have believed they could not convict Zimmerman based on the evidence, they mourned the life of Trayvon Martin, deeply, and probably wished Zimmerman had stayed in his car, per the 9-1-1 dispatcher’s orders. There are a lot of folks working hard to change the laws so that boys who look like you aren’t carelessly gunned down under the false pretense of self-defense.

Remember Your History Lesson about Blacks in America

Like Nelson Mandela said, people are not born to hate, therefore, people are not born to hate boys that look like you. It’s a learned affectation. History helps explain this.  Boys with your complexion are feared because black people were brought to this country to work as nonpaid laborers and were perceived—even back then, without any valid reason for perceiving your chocolate complexion to be nefarious—as subhuman. Unfortunately the government gradually carried out an intricate and intentional plan—via legislation and social norms—to disenfranchise black men. This ensured that black boys didn’t receive a good education and hence a good job, quality housing, and proper representation.  In television and in movies, and in the news, anti-black content flooded the airwaves—both intentionally and at times inadvertently—to sully the collective black male self-esteem and made black men believe in the inferiority these customs tried to place upon them. Unfortunately, those practices took its toll – black men paled underneath these conditions and the negative perception of black boys emerged and persevered. But no worries – all that is unraveling. The civil rights movement of the 1960s reversed a lot of the extant legislation that stifled black men, and people of all walks of life, including lawyers, legislators, teachers, writers, actors,   singers, and activists are doing everything they can to restore the perception of the black man to its rightful manner.

You are a good person, so you are already aiding in this effort.

Pages: 1 2

How ‘A Time to Kill’ Could Have Helped Zimmerman Prosecutors

Trial prosecutors insisting the case wasn’t about race possibly cost them a ‘guilty’ verdict.

Screenshot from A Time to Kill (R); Tracy Martin and Lead Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda (L)

Screenshot from A Time to Kill (L); Tracy Martin and Lead Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda (R)

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

During the post-verdict press conference, Bernie de la Rionda, the lead prosecutor in the George Zimmerman second-degree murder trial, describes how the prosecution hinged their case on the following question: Who was following who?

It seems de la Rionda hoped the all-female jury would hone in on that point as they deliberated the fate of Zimmerman. The strategy apparently did not work given the ‘not guilty’ verdict. Fielding questions in a room full of reporters, de la Rionda—trying to wrap his head around his team’s shoulda-coulda-woulda’s—maintained that this very detail—of whether Trayvon Martin was being pursued—is what “the case boils down to.” Florida State Attorney Angela Corey (and special prosecutor to the case) maintained time and time again during the post-verdict press conference that “this case is not about race.” That sentiment was soon echoed, almost verbatim, by one of the trial’s assistant prosecutors, John Guy.

Legal experts and lay trial-watchers expressed concern about the way the state tried the case, yet this revelation—that the trial’s three prosecutors, all of whom are white men, centered their case on trying to paint Zimmerman as a predator—is arguably the a ha moment for understanding why the prosecution lost.

Pages: 1 2