A cell phone video shows witnesses reacting to the Michael Brown shooting
Some legal analysts say it could be a game changer in the case
Others are skeptical and stress that there's more evidence in play
It’s a view of the Michael Brown shooting we hadn’t seen before, but could it be enough to shape the way a grand jury handles the controversial case?
An exclusive video first broadcast Wednesday on CNN shows two construction workers’ reactions just after a police officer shot the unarmed African-American 18-year-old last month in Ferguson, Missouri. The contractors shown in the short video clip told CNN they saw Brown with his hands up as Officer Darren Wilson pursued him and opened fire.
Several legal analysts describe the video as a “game changer.” Others said it might not make much of a dent in the case.
Here are three reasons legal analysts told CNN the video could be important:
1. The witnesses it depicts are white and don’t live in Ferguson.
The race of the witnesses shouldn’t matter, but it could for the grand jury that’s investigating the case, said Mark Geragos, a CNN legal analyst and criminal defense attorney.
There are nine whites and three African-Americans on the 12-member panel tasked with deciding whether Wilson, who is white, should be charged.
“You now have some witnesses who the majority of this grand jury are going to better relate to. I hate to say it, but that’s the reality of it, and that’s why it’s a game changer to me,” Geragos said.
2. It shows their reactions shortly after the shooting.
Lots of people have come forward with their accounts of what happened the day Wilson shot Brown. But it’s significant to have the immediate reactions of two witnesses on tape, said CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.
In the video, one of the construction workers raises his arms in the air – just as, the contractor says, Brown was doing when he was shot.
“You have practically in real time someone discussing what they saw, and that’s just good evidence,” Toobin said.
3. Their observations echo other witness descriptions.
Some witnesses say the teenager assaulted the white officer at the outset and tried to grab his gun; other witnesses say Wilson was the aggressor.
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard witnesses say Brown’s hands were up. When eyewitnesses’ accounts coincide, that’s a key part of building a case for prosecutors, said Sunny Hostin, a CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor.
“They’re saying that he was running from the police officer and that his hands were up,” she said. “I don’t know what other witness testimony at this point or account we have to hear. The bottom line is having your hands up is the universal sign for surrender.”
But she criticized claims that the testimony of white witnesses from outside the community would be more valuable.
“Five other witnesses from the community said the exact same thing, and it is befuddling to me how with these two witnesses, suddenly this is a game changer,” she said.
Analysts also gave several reasons to be skeptical the video will have much of an impact:
1. The witnesses didn’t see how it all started.
The men depicted in the video, who asked not to be identified after CNN contacted them, say they were standing about 50 feet away from Brown and Wilson. They say they couldn’t see how the altercation between the teenager and the police officer began.
“You have to look at where they’re standing,” said Neil Bruntrager, general counsel for the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association.
The angle the video was shot from is important, he said, adding that it seemed like the witnesses were more like 100 feet away from the shooting.
“They couldn’t have seen everything,” he said.
2. There’s a lot more evidence we haven’t seen.
Officials have said it could take months for the grand jury to review all the evidence in the controversial case.
And there’s a lot of things that could shape the direction the case takes, Geragos said, such as Wilson’s initial account immediately after the shooting and forensic investigations about where the shell casings from his gun fell.
“Somebody’s going to go through and do a detailed analysis of all that,” Geragos said.
3. It doesn’t show the shooting.
Even though it’s valuable to see the aftermath, the video doesn’t show the shooting itself.
If Wilson’s charged, that could give his defense an opening, Geragos said.
An attorney for the man who filmed the video told CNN he started recording about 40 seconds after the shooting.
The video shows an officer putting up crime scene tape – a sign, Bruntrager says, that it could have been made “well after the shooting.”
“What you have is a conversation that’s occurring after the fact,” he says.