FERGUSON, Mo. (Reuters) - The man accused of wounding two policemen during a protest rally outside the Ferguson, Missouri, police headquarters last week appeared in court briefly on Monday and did not enter a plea to charges that could bring up to life in prison.
The shooting was the latest violent incident in months of demonstrations in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, after a white police officer fatally shot unarmed black teen Michael Brown during a confrontation in August.
Jeffrey L. Williams, 20, has admitted to firing the shots that wounded the officers early Thursday and told authorities he was not shooting at police, Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch said on Sunday after announcing the arrest.
Williams gave no statements on Monday and told Judge Joseph Dueker in St. Louis County Circuit Court that he planned to hire a private attorney. He is charged with two counts of first-degree assault, a class A felony that calls for 10-30 years, or up to life in prison.
No one responded Monday at the Williams address listed in court records, a one-story blue house that had trash strewn on the lawn. Neighbors declined to comment.
Police had called the shooting an “ambush” of the officers, who were standing side by side, by a gunman embedded with protesters, but McCulloch said on Sunday that Williams may have been shooting at someone else.
Several long-time activists have said they did not recognize or know Williams as a protester.
The shooting of the officers followed a flurry of resignations and protests in the week after the U.S. Justice Department released a damning report accusing Ferguson of racially biased policing.
The Justice Department, which launched an investigation after Brown’s shooting, found pervasive racial bias in Ferguson’s policing and municipal court practices. Its police force is mostly white and two-thirds of residents are black.
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, its city manager and its municipal court judge have resigned.
Williams, who had been on probation for possession of stolen property, is accused of firing shots from a car just as a rally after Jackson’s resignation was breaking up.
Demonstrations erupted into arson and looting after Brown’s shooting in August and again in November when a grand jury declined to bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson.
Police drew criticism for mass arrests and use of gas cannisters, rubber bullets and armored vehicles in the days after Brown’s shooting, a response officials said was needed to quell the unrest.
A U.S. District judge on Monday allowed a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by people arrested in August to continue. The lawsuit names Ferguson, St. Louis County, the chiefs of both departments and other officers as defendants.
Additional reporting by Kate Munsch in Ferguson, Mary Wisniewski and Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by David Bailey; Editing by James Dalgleish, Andrew Hay and Cynthia Osterman