Ferguson police officer says he has 'clean conscience'

FERGUSON, United States - The white police officer who shot dead an unarmed black teenager in the US town of Ferguson said Tuesday he has a "clean conscience" and would not do anything differently if given the chance.

Darren Wilson said he feared for his life before he drew his gun - the first time he had used his firearm on the job in the St Louis suburb - before opening fire, killing 18-year-old Michael Brown.

"The reason I have a clean conscience is because I know I did my job right," Wilson told ABC News, speaking publicly for the first time since the August 9 shooting.

"I don't think it's haunting. It's always going to be something that happened." When asked if it would have ended the same way if Brown was white, Wilson answered: "Yes... no question." He described Brown as a "powerful man," comparing him to professional wrestler Hulk Hogan.

"He charged me, he was going to kill me," he said.

A grand jury on Monday decided not to indict Wilson, sparking a night of violent riots in Ferguson, a town of 21,000 with a mostly white police force.

Civil lawsuit may be only recourse for Ferguson teen's family

Without a criminal indictment, Michael Brown's family might have no better legal recourse than to sue local authorities for the African-American teenager's fatal shooting by a white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer.

After a St. Louis County grand jury decided on Monday not to indict officer Darren Wilson - and given the high bar to a federal criminal prosecution - the family may follow the path of other high-profile US police shootings and file a civil lawsuit for wrongful death or civil rights violations.

In some such cases, the authorities who oversee police departments agree to settle for millions of dollars. "There might be a lot of political forces that would be at work that would give the Brown family a chance at a quick settlement," said New York lawyer and former prosecutor Paul Callan.

The burden of proof in a US civil suit is lower than in a criminal case. A plaintiff needs to show liability only by the preponderance of the evidence, not beyond a reasonable doubt.

In recent years, New York City agreed to pay US$7.15 million (S$9.29 million) to the family and friends of Sean Bell; Chicago agreed to a US$4.1 million settlement with the family of Flint Farmer; and a California transit agency said it would pay $2.8 million to the family of Oscar Grant, according to news reports at the time.

All three men were shot to death by police officers in cases that drew widespread attention but not murder convictions.

Rodney King sued Los Angeles after his videotaped 1991 beating by police, and a jury awarded him US$3.8 million. "There are so few cases in which officers are criminally charged, but plenty of instances in which very successful civil rights cases are brought," said Joanna Schwartz, a UCLA law professor.

Bare high for federal charges

The US Department of Justice could also bring federal civil rights charges against Wilson, although former prosecutors have said such charges are unlikely. US Attorney General Eric Holder indicated late on Monday that a decision in the federal investigation of Wilson could come soon, saying the inquiry was at a "mature" stage.

To win a criminal conviction on civil rights charges, federal prosecutors would need to prove that Wilson intended to violate Brown's rights when he shot and killed Brown, 18, on Aug. 9. "The bar is very high," said Jennifer Laurin, a University of Texas law professor. She added, though, that federal prosecutors do not always see things the way local prosecutors do.

Supporters of the officer say he acted lawfully to defend himself during a confrontation, and on Monday, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch said a grand jury had decided there was not probable cause to bring a state charge such as murder or manslaughter.

Daryl Parks, a lawyer for the Brown family, said on CNN on Tuesday that the family was focused on the Justice Department investigation, not getting money from the city, but would explore legal options including a wrongful death lawsuit. "That will have its day," he said.

Ferguson Assistant City Manager Pam Hylton declined to comment on any possible suit.

If the family brought a civil lawsuit, a jury would essentially be asked to determine whether Wilson acted"reasonably" when he shot Brown, Schwartz said.

And although the grand jury appears to have accepted Wilson's self-defence claims, that does not necessarily mean a trial jury would do so in a civil lawsuit, said Peter Joy, a law professor and director of the criminal justice clinic at Washington University in St. Louis.

Lawsuit could allege wrongful death

The deadline to file a lawsuit would be two to five years, depending on the type of claim and whether it was under state or federal law, said St. Louis lawyer Stephen Ryals.

Brown's family members could sue Wilson and city officials on behalf of either themselves, Brown's estate, or both.

The suit could seek compensation for economic damages such as lost future income and funeral and burial expenses, as well as punitive damages, according to similar suits in past cases.

The family could sue based on wrongful death or deprivation of civil rights, said Callan, who represented the estate of Nicole Brown Simpson in a wrongful death lawsuit against former athlete O.J. Simpson. After a jury acquitted Simpson of murder, a civil jury in 1997 found him liable for the deaths of his former wife and her friend Ronald Goldman and ordered Simpson to pay US$33.5 million (S$44.5 million) in damages to the victims' families.

A claim on either theory would be difficult to win, Callan said, because of conflicting witness accounts and physical evidence Wilson acted in self-defence.