U.S.

Ferguson Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch's Long History of Siding With the Police

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09/12/14
In the Magazine
Activists raise their hands as they demand justice for the killing of Michael Brown while marching to the Thomas F. Eagleton United States Courthouse from City Hall in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, August 26, 2014. Adrees Latif/Reuters

On the afternoon of June 12, 2000, two unarmed black men pulled into the parking lot of a Jack in the Box in the northern suburbs of St. Louis, just a few miles from where Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier this month.

In the car were Earl Murray, a small-time drug dealer, and his friend Ronald Beasley. Waiting for them were a dozen detectives. By the time Murray realized it was a sting, he was surrounded. Panicked, he put his car into reverse but slammed into a police SUV behind him. Two officers approaching the car from the front opened fire. Twenty-one shots rained down on Murray and Beasley.

In an ensuing investigation, the local prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch, put the case to a grand jury, citizens who receive evidence under the instruction, questioning and watchful eye of the prosecutor to decide whether to press charges. The story presented to the grand jury was that Murray’s car moved toward the two officers, who then fired out of self-defense. The grand jury declined to indict the officers, and McCulloch said he agreed with the decision.

The Jack in the Box shooting looms large for the black community in North County, the largely black municipalities of St. Louis County that lie north of St. Louis. Black residents there feel they are routinely abused by largely white police forces. The shooting of Murray and Beasley eroded any confidence they had in McCulloch, the county prosecutor some in Ferguson call a cop’s best friend.

This week, McCulloch’s office began to present evidence to a grand jury in the case of Brown, the black, unarmed 18-year-old whose shooting death by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9 sparked nearly two weeks of riots.

The black community in Ferguson is bracing for McCulloch to let the officer who shot Brown go free, just as it believes he did with the two officers 14 years ago . “I don’t believe that Bob McCulloch’s office is going to issue any charges,” said Jerryl Christmas, a local criminal defense lawyer. “It’s not going to happen.”

McCulloch, 63, has served as St. Louis County’s prosecuting attorney since 1991. A Democrat, he is running for reelection this November unopposed.

His sympathies for the cops run deep. His father was a St. Louis policeman killed in the line of duty by a black man when McCulloch was 12. His brother, nephew and cousin all served with the St. Louis police. His mother worked as a clerk for the force for 20 years. McCulloch would have joined the force too, but he lost a leg in high school due to cancer. “I couldn’t become a policeman, so being county prosecutor is the next best thing,” he once said.

All prosecutors are cozy with their police departments—it’s part of their job. Because they rely on police to bring them evidence, a prosecutor who has a bad relationship with them has a hard time making his or her cases stick. But McCulloch’s critics say his loyalty to the police is exceptional.

McCulloch decried Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s decision to pull the St. Louis County Police out of Ferguson and put the State Highway Patrol in charge, even after the local force’s response to the protests turned Ferguson into a war zone. “To denigrate the men and women of the county police department is shameful,” he said.

“I’m not sure there was another person in the hemisphere who thought they were doing fine,” said Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator who represented inner-city St. Louis.

Edward Magee, a spokesman for McCulloch, said the prosecutor does not shy away from charging police officers. “In the 18 years I’ve been in the office, we’ve charged numerous officers,” he said.

It’s one thing for a prosecutor to defend cops he relies on to do his job. But the dynamics in St. Louis County are more complicated: a racially divided area in which white police forces stand accused of abusing the black communities they are supposed to protect. McCulloch didn’t create this dynamic, but he has become a symbol of it.

St. Louis County, which includes 90 small municipalities that encircle the city of St. Louis, is highly segregated, with black people concentrated in the north and the white middle and working class in the south.

To bring in revenue, many of these municipalities rely on traffic violations—and the fines that result. Both county and municipal forces disproportionately stop black drivers. Ferguson’s police force has 50 white officers and three black ones. One young black man told Slate he is stopped about 10 times a month.

A recent report by the legal defense nonprofit ArchCity Defenders found that 86 percent of vehicle stops in Ferguson involved a black driver, although just 67 percent of the city’s 21,203 residents are black. These traffic violations, which sometimes lead to weeks in jail, are an enormous burden on the black community. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 arrest warrants and 12,018 cases—“about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household,” the report said. Fines and court fees are Ferguson’s second largest revenue source.

“We’re just used to raise revenue,” said Patricia Bynes, a Democratic committeewoman for Ferguson Township. “On traffic day in these little municipalities, you usually find a white judge in the courtroom, white prosecutor, and you find lines of black people lined up around the corner that have been charged with these tickets.”

This constant low-level harassment of the black community has become the main point of contact between most black residents and the criminal justice system. And it always comes with the threat of violence. As multiple news reports since the Brown shooting have revealed, police in North County too often use excessive force against the black community.

Though the facts remain unclear, it appears Brown’s deadly confrontation with Officer Wilson began as a jaywalking stop. McCulloch isn’t involved in traffic stops, but the people of North County see the Brown shooting and the excessive traffic tickets as part of the same oppressive system. “To me, this is all police brutality, this is all excessive force, this is all racial profiling,” said Bynes.

 

Bynes pointed to McCulloch’s role in the Jack in the Box shooting case, which has roared back to life now that the Brown case is in McCulloch’s hands. Because of cases like that one, she said, “nobody [in the African-American community] trusts [McCulloch], but it makes the police think that they can do anything and that they can get away with it.”   

Not everyone believes McCulloch will deliver a repeat of the Jack in the Box case. Bynes said she will be surprised if there’s no indictment, particularly since federal investigators are running a parallel investigation. “His reputation is that he’s fair,” said Barry A. Short, a former U.S. attorney in Missouri. “Given the circumstances, I think he’ll bend over backwards to be fair.”

Based on his dealings with McCulloch’s office as a defense attorney, Christmas agrees that the prosecutors are fair, but thinks cases involving police are a different story. The investigating grand jury, Christmas said, is the perfect tool for allowing McCulloch to bail out the officer without getting blamed for dumping the case.

In Missouri, the grand jury consists of 12 citizens, assigned to a prosecutor, who meet to decide whether to bring criminal charges. The jurors need only decide whether there is probable cause to believe someone committed a crime. It takes nine jurors to vote to indict —what is referred to as a “true bill” or, in the case of no indictment, “no true bill.”

The grand jury deciding whether to charge Wilson has three black members. The deliberations are secret. A prosecutor assigned to the grand jury has enormous sway over the outcome, by deciding what charges to consider, what evidence to present and who will testify.

“Bob McCulloch is a very experienced prosecutor, and he’s knows how to manipulate the system so that when it’s done, it will appear the grand jury did the no true bill and that it was their decision,” Christmas said.

Christmas knows this because he used to do it himself when he was a prosecutor. “They knew my cues, whether or not I liked a case or didn’t like a case. I trained them on how to evaluate these cases,” he said. “If I didn’t like a case and felt like there should have been no true bill, I knew how to present the witnesses and give the cues to the grand jury, and they would vote to no true bill it.”

McCulloch will not be working with the grand jury himself in this case; two longtime prosecutors in his office will work directly with the grand jury. But Magee said McCulloch will be “kept abreast of what goes on and then offer his guidance and experience.”

Even without being in the room, Christmas believes McCulloch will be running the show. “When it’s all said and done, not only can he say that he didn’t have anything to do with it, it was the grand jury’s decision, he can also say, ‘I wasn’t even in there,’” Christmas said.

McCulloch has promised to seek permission to release all the evidence presented to the grand jury if it chooses not to indict and to invite Wilson to testify. (It’s rare for a defendant to testify before a grand jury, because a lawyer cannot be present, making an appearance a risk few defendants are prepared to take.)

To Barry Short, having Wilson testify inspires confidence. “I think it’s a sign that he wants the grand jury to hear it all,” he said. But Christmas isn’t appeased. “If I was representing this officer, I’d send him right in to the grand jury, because I know they’re going to take care of him,” Christmas said. “When that prosecutor finishes with that police officer in that grand jury, they’re going to love him.

“Remember,” he added, “you can’t bring Mike Brown in, ’cause he dead.”

Fourteen years ago, the two officers who shot Murray and Beasley were also invited to testify before the grand jury. Both men told jurors that Murray’s car was coming at them and that they feared being run over. McCulloch said that “every witness who was out there testified that it made some forward motion.” But a later federal investigation showed that the car had never come at the two officers: Murray never took his car out of reverse.

An exhaustive St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation found that only three of the 13 detectives who testified had said the car moved forward: the two who unloaded their guns and a third whose testimony was, as McCulloch admitted, “obviously…completely wrong.” McCulloch never introduced independent evidence to help clarify for the grand jury whether Murray’s car moved forward.

On the last day of testimony, an investigator in McCulloch’s office read out a list of every interaction Murray and Beasley had had with law enforcement, even arrests that never resulted in charges.

A few hours later, the grand jury voted not to press charges.

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