The prosecutor heading the Michael Brown investigation has a perception problem: When it comes to his impartiality, the jury is still out.
Overseeing possible charges in the shooting death of the unarmed teen falls on St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch, a Missouri native whose police officer father was killed in the line of duty when McCulloch was 12.
McCulloch's mother, brother, uncle and cousin also worked for the St. Louis police department. Those close family ties to the police — and a bellwether decision 14 years ago not to prosecute two cops who shot and killed two suspects in a drug bust — have raised doubts about his objectivity in deciding whether Ferguson, Missouri, officer Darren Wilson should be prosecuted for the Aug. 9 killing of Brown, 18.
“We don’t have any confidence in the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney’s office,” Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said last Friday during a visit to Ferguson, a predominantly black suburb where clashes have raged between protesters and police since Wilson, white, shot Brown, who was black. "I have no faith in him, but I do trust the FBI and the Justice Department."
“I couldn’t become a policeman, so being county prosecutor is the next best thing."
Grand jurors could start hearing the case as soon as Wednesday to decide whether to indict Wilson on state criminal charges, which is then up to McCulloch whether or not to pursue. Separately, the Justice Department is doing its own civil rights investigation; Attorney General Eric Holder is traveling to Ferguson on Wednesday.
Those who know McCulloch personally don't have concerns about his role in the case, or his ability to overcome obstacles: McCulloch had his leg amputated at the hip when he was 17 due to a rare bone cancer. Matt Selby, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said that in the decade that he has known McCulloch, he's witnessed a prosecutor with "integrity, experience. He's strong in his convictions about what's right and wrong."
"I can't think of a better prosecutor to be in a position to handle this case the way it should be handled."
Julie Lawson, president and CEO of the St. Louis-based Crime Victim Advocacy Center, has known McCulloch for nine years through her organization, which McCulloch serves on the advisory board for.
"He's uniquely dedicated to victims' services," she said. "I don't have any reason to believe he would be unfair or that he would be prejudicial."
But numerous local leaders have teamed up against McCulloch, a Democrat who has been prosecuting attorney of St. Louis County for 23 years. Many of them point to a 2000 incident in which McCulloch opted not to charge two undercover drug officers who shot and killed two unarmed black men.
State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed started an online petition calling for a special prosecutor to be appointed, which has already gained more than 60,000 signatures. State Sen. Maria Chapelle-Nadal and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley have also demanded McCulloch step aside. Mound City Bar Association, the oldest African-American association of attorneys west of the Mississippi, held a news conference Tuesday calling for McCulloch to recuse himself.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has said he won't remove McCulloch, although he also pointed out that it would be easy for him make the decision himself to step aside.
McCulloch is not taking inquiries from the media. But McCulloch's executive assistant, Ed Magee, told NBC News that McCulloch has no plans to hand over the investigation.
"Mr. McCulloch has been the elected prosecutor in St. Louis County since 1991. He has been re-elected every four years by a vast majority of the voters, including Aug. 5 of this year," Magee said. "He will continue to do his duties as the people have elected him to do."
Selby, the president of the prosecutors' association, cited those re-elections, plus McCulloch's broad range of experience as prosecuting attorney in the largest jurisdiction in the state, as reasons to have confidence in him.
"You put all those things together, and I can't think of a better prosecutor to be in a position to handle this case the way it should be handled," he said.
The decision on whether to ask for a special prosecutor is up to McCulloch himself, said Peter Joy, a Washington University professor of law.
"You typically only ask for a special prosecutor when there is a conflict of interest in doing your job," Joy said. "He doesn't believe that there is a conflict of interest."
Before he lost his leg, McCulloch wanted to do the same thing as his father, a St. Louis police officer who was shot in the head during a gun battle with a black kidnap suspect in 1964.
“I couldn’t become a policeman, so being county prosecutor is the next best thing,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch once.
Just months into his first term, he faced a test that attracted national attention: a riot at a Guns N' Roses concert in St. Louis injured 40 concertgoers and 25 police officers. McCulloch decided to charge frontman Axl Rose with misdemeanor assault and property damage, and vowed to chase him around the country on an arrest warrant. Rose ended up surrendering.
A decade later, McCulloch was the subject of protests when two officers killed a pair of men in a parking lot who had being convicted of drug and assault offenses in the past. The officers fired 21 shots at Earl Murray and Ronald Beasley; a federal investigation found the officers were justified because they feared for their safety.
Protesters and defense lawyers held demonstrations when McCulloch didn't prosecute the officers and described Murray and Beasley as "bums." He insisted that his father's killing, which was prominently featured in his first campaign ads, was an "incredibly irrelevant facet" to his decision.
Speaking with a community paper two years ago in his office, which is adorned with photos of his wife and four children, McCulloch said the trying events of his childhood have served as character-building experiences.
"You have these things and you suffer through them and deal with them. You don’t forget or act like they never happened, but you try to understand them," he told Ladue News. "I think all of it gave me great empathy for victims.”
First published August 20 2014, 7:16 AM