FERGUSON, Mo. — A prosecutor was critical Monday of store surveillance footage from a new documentary about the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, calling it a heavily edited attempt to distort an incident that occurred several hours before Brown died in an encounter with a police officer.
Filmmaker Jason Pollock responded by calling St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch a “master of deception” and standing by the video shown in his documentary “Stranger Fruit.”
McCulloch released five surveillance videos from the early hours of Aug. 9, 2014, at Ferguson Market & Liquor that he said are unedited and tell a different story than filmmakers suggest.
The footage as it appears in the documentary “was clearly an attempt to distort this and turn it into something it isn’t,” McCulloch said at a news conference. He added that it was potentially dangerous, setting off a Sunday night protest of about 100 people that included reports of shots fired and the arrest of a man accused of trying to blow up a police car by putting a napkin in the gas tank and trying to light it. Henry Stokes, 44, was charged Monday with attempting to cause a catastrophe.
On Monday night, a few dozen protesters gathered peacefully outside Ferguson Market while police officers guarded the store.
Pollock said there was no deceptive editing.
“He’s trying to make it seem like I did something that I didn’t,” Pollock said of McCulloch on Monday in a phone interview. “He’s a master at deception, I’ll give him that, and he tricked the world for a long time, but he can’t trick us now. Because anybody who sees that video knows exactly what they see.”
Brown, a black, unarmed 18-year-old, was fatally shot by a white officer, Darren Wilson, shortly after noon on Aug. 9, 2014. The shooting set off months of sometimes violent protests. Wilson was eventually cleared of wrongdoing by both a St. Louis County grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Within days of Brown’s death, Ferguson police released surveillance video from Ferguson Market purporting to show Brown stealing cigarillos from the store shortly before noon. He left the store and was walking on Canfield Drive when Wilson told him to get on the sidewalk and off the street — the beginning of their fatal confrontation.
The documentary, which premiered Saturday, includes earlier and previously unseen surveillance footage showing Brown inside the store at 1:14 a.m. getting what appears to be two drinks from a cooler, then going to the counter and requesting cigarillos. The clerk puts the drinks and cigarillos in a bag.
Brown gives something to a clerk, who appears to sniff it. A second clerk also sniffs what appears to be a small bag. Brown starts to leave but then returns to the counter, talks to the clerks and leaves without the bag containing the drinks and cigarillos.
Pollock said he believes the footage shows Brown trading a small amount of marijuana in exchange for the cigarillos. Pollock reasons Brown returned 10 hours later to pick up the bag of cigarillos that he simply had set aside earlier — not to steal cigarillos as police claimed.
Jay Kanzler, an attorney for Ferguson Market, said there was no bartered deal between Brown and the market workers. Kanzler said Brown offered marijuana for cigarillos, but the workers refused.
McCulloch agreed “there was no transaction between Mr. Brown and the store employees.”
“And the suggestion that he’s coming back to pick up what he bartered for is just stupid,” McCulloch said.
The grainy unedited footage, which has no sound and also was released by Kanzler, shows a clerk pulling both boxes of cigarillos from the bag after Brown leaves and putting them back on a shelf. Another worker takes the drinks back toward the cooler.
Pollock said those actions are not relevant.
“I didn’t edit the exchange,” Pollock said. “I decided to end my scene after Michael left the store because after that it is irrelevant what happened to the (cigarillos) and it is irrelevant what they (the clerks) did with them. The exchange is over, they had the weed, and then he decided to leave the store. He did not rob the store.”
Pollock said the clerks lied because they didn’t want to admit to involvement in a drug deal. But McCulloch said there was no evidence the workers did anything wrong.
The newly released footage also raised questions about how forthcoming police and prosecutors were about evidence. McCulloch said the earlier store encounter involving Brown was noted in a police report released on the night in November 2014 when he announced the grand jury had decided not to indict Wilson, who later resigned.
The prosecutor said that video was never released because the incident did not result in any charges and the footage was “immaterial” to what happened later that day.
St. Louis County’s NAACP chapter said it’s “deeply concerned” about the footage that’s now surfacing.
“Regardless of what was revealed in the video, Michael Brown should have never lost his life,” board member John Gaskin III said in a statement. “If the (documentary) video is accurate and valid, it is unfortunate that Brown was portrayed internationally as a ‘thief’ and ‘criminal.’ It remains injudicious that so many men of color are racially profiled on an ongoing basis and far too frequently guilty until proven innocent in the United States’ criminal justice system.”