By Alan Scher Zagier
The 18-year-old fatally shot by a suburban St. Louis police officer didn’t face any juvenile charges at the time of his death and never was charged with a serious felony such as murder, robbery or burglary, a juvenile court system lawyer said Wednesday.
Those details emerged at a hearing in which two media organizations sought the release of any possible juvenile records for Michael Brown. An attorney for the Brown family called the effort to get the records “shameful” and motivated by “character assassination.”
Cynthia Harcourt, the St. Louis County juvenile office’s attorney, offered the most specific public details on whether Brown faced legal trouble before his 18th birthday — a subject of intense speculation in a case that has garnered global attention. The 45-minute hearing before a St. Louis County family court judge didn’t reveal whether Brown had ever been charged with lesser offenses as a juvenile.
Juvenile records are confidential in Missouri, but under state law, being charged with certain violent crimes removes those juvenile privacy protections. Police have said Brown had no adult criminal record.
Joe Martineau, an attorney for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, cited an overriding public right to know Brown’s history after his early August shooting death by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson sparked more than a week of sometimes-violent protests and drew international scrutiny.
“There is interest in knowing Michael Brown’s background,” Martineau said. “What we’re asking for here is just verification, one way or the other … We’re acting in a vacuum here.”
A northern California journalist joined the St. Louis newspaper in seeking the records.
Harcourt said that “simple curiosity” doesn’t trump the state’s legal interest in protecting minors accused of crimes.
“The court of public opinion does not require the release of juvenile records,” she said.
Brown family attorney Anthony Gray said that even if Brown did have a brush with the juvenile court system — including for such low-level offenses as truancy — those details are irrelevant to the question of whether Wilson acted with excessive force.
“I don’t know what would be the relevance of that … after this young man was executed in broad daylight,” said Gray, who attended the hearing but did not speak in court.
The civil lawsuit by Charles C. Johnson of Fresno, California, cites a 1984 Missouri Court of Appeals ruling that allowed the release of the juvenile records of an 18-year-old who was killed by a security guard while shoplifting at a supermarket in 1979.
That man’s mother challenged a trial court’s decision to release the records to defendants who were hoping to determine the 18-year-old’s lost earning capacity.