U.S. Justice Department officials on Thursday criticized local authorities’ investigation of the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, saying the case had been handled in a “selective” and “inappropriate” manner.
The department’s criticism comes after the official St. Louis County autopsy of Michael Brown, 18, who was shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, was leaked to media on Wednesday.
The autopsy report, obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and published on its website, suggested Brown sustained a gunshot wound to the hand from close range and came as a grand jury considered whether Wilson should face charges.
“The department considers the selective release of information in this investigation to be irresponsible and highly troubling,” Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said.
“Since the release of the convenience store footage there seems to be an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case,” Iverson added, referring to the Ferguson police department’s release of video shortly after the shooting that showed a robbery at a nearby convenience store, although it did not specifically link Brown at the time to the footage.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder expressed frustration with local officials investigating the incident as the Justice Department also conducts a federal investigation, according to a department official.
In a meeting with Justice Department lawyers on Wednesday, Holder said he was “exasperated” by the “selective flow of information coming out of Missouri” and called the leaks “inappropriate and troubling,” the official said.
Brown’s death ignited angry protests across Ferguson, a mostly black community with a majority white police force and city government, and drew global attention to racial tensions in the United States.
Protests have continued since August and flared again on Wednesday night, leading to multiple arrests, according to police.
Accounts of the shooting differ, but witnesses and law enforcement officials have said Brown and Wilson got into an altercation through the window of the officer’s vehicle after Wilson told Brown and a friend to leave the middle of a street.
Brown, who was shot six times, died about 30 feet from the patrol car.
The official autopsy released this week said at least one bullet struck Brown’s hand at close range, suggesting that Brown’s hand was near Wilson’s weapon at some point. It also showed Brown tested positive for marijuana.
St. Louis County’s medical examiner office verified the autopsy report but said it did not release it.
Some activists have said the leak seemed aimed at bolstering support for Wilson and has further strained the community.
An attorney for Brown’s parents has said the autopsy was not surprising given witnesses accounts of an altercation at the patrol car.
Brown’s family released a preliminary private autopsy findings in August. The Justice Department also ordered its own autopsy but has not yet released its report.
(Reporting by Julia Edwards in Washington, Curtis Skinner in San Francisco and Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Mo.; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Bill Trott)