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Jury will use objective reasonableness in Ferguson shooting case

Objective reasonableness means that an officer may use deadly force when he or she has the objective and reasonable belief that his or her life or the lives of others is in danger of death or physical harm.

As many in the U.S. roil over the August 9 fatal shooting of Michael Brown — an 18 year-old in Ferguson, Missouri — the country turns to the trial that will determine whether Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, will be convicted.

After Brown’s death, riots and protests abounded in Ferguson and around the U.S. in opposition to what many consider the militarization of the police and the unlawful shooting of an unarmed black teenager. Racist allegations have been thrown at Wilson, and the National Guard was called in to restore peace to the town as clashes raged between civilians and police officers. The St. Louis County grand jury will hold a trial for Wilson, and “objective reasonableness” will be one of the central instructions given to the jury.


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Objective reasonableness was established in 1989 by the Supreme Court in the case of Graham v. Connor, stating that an officer may use deadly force when the officer has the objective and reasonable belief that his or her life or the lives of others is in serious danger of death or physical harm. Matthew McNicholas, partner with McNicholas & McNicholas, a Los Angeles-based plaintiff’s trial law firm, shed some light on the parameters that will be used for analysis of Wilson’s actions on August 9 in an interview with InsideCounsel:

“The jury will be instructed on the “objectively reasonable” standard.  That standard requires the jury to analyze the relevant facts to determine whether the officer had an objectively reasonable belief that he or the public was in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.  If the answer is “yes,” then deadly force was allowed. This standard means that the officer’s subjective belief is not relevant — the jury cannot consider it.”

The jury will only be able to consider what the officer knew at the time of the shooting, which will call into play whether or not Wilson was aware of a strong-arm robbery in which Brown could have been a suspect. Such considerations will include whether or not Wilson heard radio traffic about the robbery, and if he testifies that he believes Brown was indeed a suspect or not.

McNicholas describes a case similar to this incident that occurred in Los Angeles just last year where objective reasonableness was employed to convict a police officer of killing an unarmed man:

“In that case, there was an armed robbery committed in Culver City in the middle of weekend day where a silent alarm was triggered. The suspects left and police responded to the store.  After responding, the police broadcast a description of the two suspects on the radio.  Hearing the description, another Culver City officer saw whom he believed to be the suspects about one-mile away, and pulled them over. Five other officers arrived as a backup, and male suspect was ordered out of the car. As he exited with hands raised, one office fired three shots, killing him.  The jury awarded his four heirs $8.8 million. They concluded the shooting officer did not have an objectively reasonable belief of imminent serious injury or death because the other five officers at the scene testified they all saw his palms were completely empty.”

At the request of news outlets, the St. Louis County grand jury has released that the jury will host nine whites and three blacks who will decide Wilson’s fate.

Contributing Author

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Juliana Kenny

Juliana Kenny is a contributor to, covering a range of topics including patent litigation, conflict mineral laws, executive compensation, and antitrust regulation. Juliana earned B.A.s...

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