Why Ferguson is so mad at prosecutor Bob McCulloch

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announces the grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year old, on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, at the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton, Mo. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cristina Fletes-Boutte)

When St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch took to the podium late Monday night to announce the grand jury’s decision on the controversial death of Ferguson, Mo., teenager Michael Brown, he didn’t deliver an indictment of Darren Wilson, the local police officer who shot and killed Brown on Aug. 9.

In fact, the only person who was indicted — in the court of public opinion, at least — was McCulloch himself.

“An extended whine and complaint,” said CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. “Entirely inappropriate and embarrassing.”

“A long-winded, smirking speech,” added Gawker.

“Bizarre,” concluded the Daily Mail.

Attorney General Eric Holder, meanwhile, was “particularly angry” at McCulloch for invoking his name and “tak[ing] the focus off the grand jury and put[ing] it squarely on [McCulloch himself],” according to the New York Times. "This process is broken," said Benjamin Crump, a Brown family attorney.

The judgment of McCulloch was remarkably swift — and remarkably harsh. But why?

The answer has as much to do with the way McCulloch has conducted himself as a prosecutor for the last 25 years as with the words he uttered Monday night — and it’s leading critics to say that we should be more careful about who we allow to oversee cases such as Brown’s in the future.

Part of the problem was McCulloch’s monologue, which he delivered at night, when violence is more likely to occur and crowds are harder to control. Viewers in Ferguson and elsewhere were shocked that, before revealing the grand jury’s verdict, McCulloch spent 10 minutes hectoring Twitter for showing interest in Brown’s tragic death. “Within minutes, various accounts of the incident began appearing on social media, accounts filled with speculation and little if any solid, accurate information,” McCulloch said. “Almost immediately, neighbors began gathering and anger began growing because of the various descriptions of what had happened.”

The response from actor Wil Wheaton was typical: “Remember that time social media shot an unarmed teenager, and left his body on the street for four hours? Bob McCulloch remembers.”

But in truth, the problem runs deeper than McCulloch’s rambling remarks. The real problem is that everyone who’s been paying attention to Ferguson over the last few months was primed to distrust him long before Monday night.

For decades McColluch has been viewed suspiciously by many in his own community. They regard him as having a strong prosecutorial bias in favor of law enforcement and an unusually strong prejudice against its accusers.

His family background reinforces this suspicion. McCulloch’s father, brother, nephew and cousin all served with the St. Louis Police Department; his mother was a clerk there. On July 2, 1964, when McCulloch was 12, his father, a 37-year-old canine officer, Paul McCulloch, was shot in the head and killed by a fleeing kidnapper named Eddie Glenn in the former Pruitt-Igoe housing projects. McCulloch never got over his father’s slaying. He resolved to become a police officer himself, but he was forced to rethink his career ambitions after losing a leg to cancer as a teenager. “I couldn’t become a policeman,” McCulloch once told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “So being county prosecutor is the next best thing.” His father’s death was a major theme in his first campaign ads.

McCulloch showed a knack for controversy from the start. Shortly after taking office in 1991, he charged Axl Rose with misdemeanor assault and property damage for allegedly hitting a security guard, hurting three concertgoers and damaging a dressing room at Riverport Amphitheater after a riotous Guns N’ Roses concert ended with injuries to 40 fans and 25 police officers. McCulloch made headlines by pursuing Rose across the country to serve an arrest warrant. “Wherever he goes, we’ll be waiting for him,” McCulloch told the media. “If he wants to cancel his whole schedule, fine. If he leaves the country, we’ll notify Customs to get him when he comes back.”

But it was a pair of later cases that convinced locals McCulloch’s sympathies lay with government and law enforcement officials and not with their alleged victims.

In 1997, an employee of the St. Louis County Economic Council named Russ Signorino contacted the FBI to report what he said was improper behavior by a member of the county executive’s cabinet. He also sent reporters an anonymous fax from a Kinko’s in Creve Coeur, Mo. Claiming that the fax contained a threat, McCulloch gave a grand jury subpoena to the county police, who then used it to obtain security footage from Kinko’s showing that Signorino had sent the message.

The only hitch? McCulloch never told the grand jury what he was doing, and he later admitted that Signorino had never issued a threat or committed a crime. No matter: Signorino was forced to resign anyway. According to the Post-Dispatch, McCulloch denied “that he had abused the grand jury process to identify a whistleblower who was acting lawfully.”

A protestor poses for a "hands up" photo in front of a burning building on West Florissant Ave. in Ferguson, Mo., Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Christian Gooden) Click for slideshow

In 2001, McCulloch convened another grand jury after a pair of undercover drug officers shot and killed two men, a suspect and his passenger, outside a Jack in the Box in Berkeley, Mo. The officers told the jurors that they had fired only after the suspect tried to run them over with his car, and in his public statements about the secret proceedings, McCulloch himself repeatedly insisted that “every witness” had corroborated the officers’ version of events.

But a subsequent report by the Post-Dispatch revealed that McCulloch had lied. Only three of the 13 detectives who testified said the suspect's car had moved forward. Two of them were the shooters themselves; the third was "a detective who McCulloch later said he considered charging with perjury because his account was so at odds with the facts." According to the grand jury tapes, “four other detectives testified that they never saw the suspect’s car travel toward the officers.” A collision expert working for the Justice Department also determined that the suspect's car had remained in reverse throughout the incident. But McCulloch never brought any of this evidence before the grand jury — and, as a result, the jurors determined that the officers were right to fear for their safety. The case didn't go to trial.

When activists protested, McCulloch snapped back. “These guys were bums,” he said of the suspects. “The print media and self-anointed activists have been portraying the two gentlemen as folk heroes and have been vilifying the police. I think it is important for the public to know that these two and others like them for years have spread destruction in the community dealing crack cocaine and heroin.”

This summer, African-American leaders called for a special prosecutor to replace McCulloch on the Brown case, citing these controversies as well as McCulloch’s decision to support challenger Steven Senger (a white man) over incumbent Charlie Dooley (a black man) in the 2014 Democratic primary for county executive. “Nobody thinks Michael Brown can get a fair shake from this guy,” Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman, told the New York Times. “There is very little faith, especially in the black community, that there would ever be a fair trial.” Missouri state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed presented a petition with 70,000 signatures calling for McCulloch to recuse himself from the case, but McCulloch refused to back down.

“I have absolutely no intention of walking away from the duties and responsibilities entrusted to me by the people in this community,” he told KTRS in St. Louis. “I have done it for 24 years, and I’ve done, if I do say so myself, a very good job.”

But given the blowback to McCulloch’s remarks on the Brown decision — and the arson, looting and violence that plagued Ferguson overnight — it’s hard not to wonder if the situation in Missouri would be a little safer right now, and the conversation across the United States a little calmer, if someone else had been standing at that podium Monday evening. Someone, perhaps, without McCulloch’s history of identifying so forcefully with the police; someone who wouldn’t have been as tempted to spend the second half of his press conference discrediting witnesses and presenting evidence in Wilson's favor — a move that made McCulloch sound more like a defense attorney than a prosecutor.

Does this mean the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson is wrong? That it reflects the maneuvering of a biased prosecutor rather than a judicious reading of the facts? Not necessarily. But because McCulloch’s motives have long been in doubt, too many people now assume that he's the reason Wilson won't have to stand trial. That’s dangerous — and divisive. In the future, prosecutors such as McCulloch and politicians such as Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon should recognize that perception matters in controversial cases like Ferguson.

It’s great that McCulloch thinks he’s done “a very good job.” But what may be more important, in the end, is whether the rest of America agrees.