By Kevin McDermott, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — Even as a St. Louis County grand jury prepares to open its examination of Michael Brown’s death, a rising chorus is demanding that the county’s controversial elected prosecutor step aside and let a special prosecutor handle it.
But Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon isn’t ready to join that chorus.
Nixon said Tuesday he doesn’t intend to ask County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch to step aside from the case amid criticism that McCulloch will be biased in favor of the police officer who shot Brown.
“You have a democratically elected prosecutor,” Nixon said in an interview with the Post-Dispatch on Tuesday afternoon. “At times of stress to democracy, you need to look at the process that has served our state and country well.
“If he thinks that he wants to do that, certainly. That’s his call.”
Nixon later released a statement defending that decision on grounds that switching prosecutors now could endanger any future prosecution in the case.
“There is a well-established process by which a prosecutor can recuse themselves from a pending investigation, and a special prosecutor be appointed,” Nixon said in the statement. “Departing from this established process could unnecessarily inject legal uncertainty into this matter and potentially jeopardize the prosecution.”
McCulloch is from a family with deep roots in police culture, including his late father, a police officer who was killed in the line of duty by an African-American suspect.
In both his prosecutorial decisions and public comments, critics say, he has shown a clear bias toward police in cases where officers’ actions are in question.
Among McCulloch’s recent controversial statements was searing criticism of Nixon himself, for his decision last week to put the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge of security in Ferguson, after local and county police were accused of being overly aggressive with protesters.
“It’s shameful what he did today, he had no legal authority to do that,” McCulloch said of Nixon at the time. “To denigrate the men and women of the county police department is shameful.”
Among McCulloch’s critics is Missouri state Senator Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis), who has led a petition drive that has gathered 26,000 signatures demanding McCulloch’s removal.
“He doesn’t have the fortitude to do the right thing when it comes to prosecuting police officers,” Nasheed told CNN in an interview that aired Tuesday. “His cousin is a police officer. His mother works for the police department. His uncle is a police officer, and, again, we think that his judgment will be clogged as a result of all of those occurrences.”
Among other African-American leaders taking that stance are U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-St. Louis), and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.
Dooley on Tuesday accused McCulloch of “a history of insensitivity to the African-American community.”
“He’s the wrong person to be prosecuting this,” Dooley said in an interview with the Post-Dispatch. “He’s the wrong person at the wrong time. The African-American community has no confidence in him getting justice for the African-American community or for the Brown family.”
Dooley acknowledged that “Mr. McColloch and I do not get along.” The animosity was stirred, in part, by the prosecuting attorney’s endorsement of Councilman Steve Stenger in the August 5 Democratic primary that signaled the end of Dooley’s 11-year tenure as county executive. McCulloch, who had backed Dooley in three previous bids for re-election, broke with the incumbent over what he termed “corruption” in televised commercials on behalf of Stenger’s candidacy.
McCulloch couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday evening. But he acknowledged in an interview with KMOX Radio that Nixon could remove him from the case.
“I certainly have no intention of walking away from the responsibilities that the people have entrusted me with, but I also understand if the governor were to do that, he has that right.”
Brown, 18, was shot and killed August 9 by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, after a confrontation. An autopsy concluded he was shot six times.
There has been no dispute about the fact that Brown was unarmed, nor that it was Wilson who shot and killed him. But witnesses have given conflicting accounts of whether Brown at the time was struggling with Wilson, or was trying to surrender.
That’s a question that’s currently under scrutiny by twin local and federal investigations. McCulloch’s office will present evidence to the standing St. Louis County grand jury beginning Wednesday.
“We are going to attempt to start giving evidence to the grand jury (Wednesday), depending upon the ability to get the witnesses in and the witnesses showing up,” said Ed Magee, spokesman for McCulloch.
McGee said the case “will be handled by the attorney regularly assigned to the grand jury” rather than McCulloch himself. However, McCulloch, as the county prosecuting attorney, is ultimately in charge of it — unless he were to recuse himself.
Among other points in Nixon’s interview with the Post-Dispatch Tuesday:
-Nixon said he talked with President Barack Obama Monday, and that Obama pressed him about his decision to bring in the Missouri National Guard, though he didn’t actively discourage it. “He asked what were the rules of engagement, and what the thought process was.”
“He understands,” Nixon added. “Here’s a fellow who’s had to order bombs dropped on Iraq. … I think he certainly understood my reasoning.”
-He credited the protesters with “forcing all policy makers” in America to focus on issues like race, poverty and police relationships with communities. He stressed that he believes most of the violence in Ferguson has been instigated by “violent criminals” coming in from outside the community, he and said he defines them completely differently from the local protesters.
-He acknowledged he is worried that the violence could intensify depending on what happens in the shooting investigation. “I think all of us see a tinderbox of emotion and energy out there.”
-He brushed aside criticism that his handling of issue has been inconsistent and ineffective. “If you’re catching a lot of flak, it means you’re over the target.”
-He expressed pride in the fact there there have been no further fatalities “since the horrific death of an 18-year-old shot in the street,” and he credited police restraint and the non-violent elements within the protesters for avoiding further fatalities.
Photo: GovernorJayNixon via Flickr