Essential Pittsburgh
3:49 pm
Thu August 21, 2014

Law Professor David Harris: Ferguson Shooting is More Complicated Than It Appears

Credit Elvert Barnes / Flickr

Much of the nation’s attention has been focused on the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. The fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a young African American man, by a police officer has led to riots, looting and tension between law enforcement officials and the citizens of Ferguson.

Pitt Law Professor David Harris evaluated the police department’s response to the incident.

“What you have here is not just the killing of one person by another, but the killing of a person by an agent of the state, a police officer."

Because of these stipulations and "the possibility that the police officer went beyond his duty to protect with reasonable force while depriving the person of their 'constitutional right to life without due process,'" Harris said there is a possibility of both state and federal court cases.

If the officer is charged, which Harris said is "a big if", the court case would still be a long process. Harris pointed out that a police officer has the right to use force to effectuate the job.

According to Harris there are four reasons why it is difficult to convict a police officer:

  1. Police officers are often viewed as the good guys and usually get the benefit of the doubt
  2. Victims of these cases are not usually squeaky clean and that seems to affect the jury
  3. Police officers are seen as an emblem of the community. That makes it very hard for the jury to convict them
  4. If it's a federal case you get that higher burden of proof. It's much harder to convict in a federal court than it is in a state court.

An investigation of the Michael Brown shooting is currently underway and Harris said the process could take months.

"There is no short-cutting doing a thorough job. You have a lot of probing around, maybe forensic evidence, certainly the autopsies and you have to talk to absolutely every witness who might know something. There is a lot to look at," said Harris.