The moment Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed teen Michael Brown, a 25-year-old Supreme Court case became the prism through which his actions will be legally judged, the Associated Press reports. To most people, an 18-year-old unarmed man may not appear to pose a deadly threat. A police officer’s perspective is different. That is how an officer should be judged after the fact, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the 1989 opinion.
The case, decided at a time when violence against police was on the rise, has shaped the national legal standards that govern when police officers are justified in using force. The key question about Wilson’s killing on Aug. 9 is whether a reasonable officer with a similar background would have responded the same way. Since the 1989 Graham v. Connor decision, the courts in most instances have sided with the police. “Except in the most outrageous cases of police misconduct, juries tend to side with police officers and give them a lot of leeway,” said Woody Connette, the attorney who represented the Charlotte, N.C., man behind the case, Dethorne Graham.