A leading criminal defense attorney said Friday that Michael Brown’s family has a good chance of winning their civil lawsuit against the Ferguson Police Department.
“In a criminal case, the prosecution has to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Barry Slotnick, a New York attorney who is not connected to the Brown case. “In a civil case, the burden of proof is different.”
Juries want to have no doubt before charging a defendant with murder or assault, but they are more willing to accept some ambiguity where only money is on the line, Mr. Slotnick said.
He added that the family’s lawsuit will likely be helped by a scathing report released by the Justice Department that found a history of racial abuse by Ferguson law enforcement.
“If, in fact, the Department of Justice is coming forward with harsh evidence with regards to the killing or the death, then I think there is a possibility that the family could prevail,” Mr. Slotnick said.
A grand jury in November ruled there was not enough evidence to charge former Officer Darren Wilson in Mr. Brown’s death. On Wednesday, the DOJ concluded its own investigation, also ruling that Mr. Wilson should not face any charges.
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It was a different story for the Ferguson Police Department itself, however, as federal investigators found the law enforcement agency had a history of civil rights abuses and using excessive force against black citizens.
Wrongful-death lawsuits are often the next step pursued by families in these cases. In 2013, the parents of Florida teen Trayvon Martin settled a lawsuit with the homeowner’s association of the gated community where their son was killed. They’re still deciding whether to bring a similar suit against George Zimmerman, who claims he shot Trayvon in self-defense in accordance with Florida’s stand-your-ground laws.
One of Mr. Slotnick’s former clients in the 1980s was also later hit with a civil lawsuit. Mr. Slotnick successfully defended Bernie Goetz, dubbed the “Subway Vigilante,” who shot at four black men trying to rob him. Mr. Goetz was found innocent of all charges, save for a minor charge of possessing an unregistered firearm.
But in a later civil case — in which Mr. Slotnick was not involved — brought by one of the men who was shot, Mr. Goetz was ordered to pay more than $40 million in restitution.
So a civil lawsuit will likely provide the Brown family with an opportunity to state their grievances against the Ferguson police, Mr. Slotnick said.
“They have an opportunity to win, to vindicate their position and to send a message to communities to reign in or review their police departments,” he said.