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The Prosecutor in the Michael Brown Case Must Go

Robert McCulloch should step aside, precisely because the case is so murky

Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images

Lots of people in and around Ferguson, Missouri, don’t trust Robert McCulloch, the prosecutor who is presenting the facts about Michael Brown’s killing to a local Grand Jury. In fact, more than 70,000 of them have reportedly signed an online petition calling for the appointment of a new, special prosecutor to replace him.

These critics have their reasons. They think McCulloch's record suggests that he is unlikely to construct an aggressive case against Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Brown, who is black. And without a serious effort at prosecution, these people say, a Grand Jury is more likely to conclude the case is too weak to pursue.

I don’t know if that assessment of McCulloch and his motives is correct. I also don’t think it matters. McCulloch should step aside.

I don’t say this because I’m sure that Wilson is guilty or deserves indictment. On the contrary, the precise circumstances of Brown’s death still seem murky. Pretty much everybody seems to agree on how the incident began twelve days ago—with Wilson stopping Brown in the street, an altercation ensuing, and then Wilson firing at Brown as he gave chase to him. But the witness accounts that have become public so far diverge on a few key points, including what Brown was doing when he eventually stopped and turned. At that moment, when one of Wilson's bullets delivered a fatal blow to Brown's head, was the 18-year-old trying to surrender? Or was he charging at Wilson? The angle of the shot has gotten a lot of attention, because it suggests that Brown, who was six-foot-four, had lowered his head before getting hit. But that could actually be consistent with either of the theories.

The twelve-member Grand Jury will eventually get to see more evidence. It will get the results of ballistic tests, for example, and it will hear a much fuller range of witness testimony than anybody in the public has heard so far. But more evidence won’t necessarily clarify what happened—or whether Wilson should face criminal charges. Not everybody will remember the event the same way. Tests can be inconclusive or contradict one another. The Grand Jury will ultimately have to decide whether there is "probable cause," but that's a pretty fuzzy standard and open to interpretation. Inevitably, a lot will depend on what kind of case the prosecutor decides to present. 

The issue with McCulloch isn’t whether he's capable of mastering and presenting the material. It's whether he'll do so in an impartial way. Prosecutors are always close to police, because they work closely on investigations. But McCulloch seems to have particularly strong feelings—strong enough that, when Governor Jay Nixon called in the state highway patrol to take over security in Ferguson a week ago, McCulloch criticized Nixon strongly and publicly. “It's shameful what he did today, he had no legal authority to do that," McCulloch said. "To denigrate the men and women of the county police department is shameful."

One reason McCulloch may feel so strongly about cops is that several relatives have served on the force. (One of them, McCulloch's father, died in the line of duty when he was shot by an African-American.) Critics have also taken note of a 2001 statement McCulloch made, in a controversial case of police shooting two unarmed men. McCulloch called the victims “bums.” McCulloch presented that case to a Grand Jury. It declined to indict. 

“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.” McCulloch has bristled at such criticism and pledged to see the case through. “I have absolutely no intention of walking away from the duties and responsibilities entrusted to me by the people in this community,” McCulloch said in a radio interview. “I have done it for 24 years, and I’ve done, if I do say so myself, a very good job.”

It’s entirely possible that a fair-minded Grand Jury will conclude the evidence doesn't justify an indictment, let alone a conviction, at least according to the legal standards of Missouri. As my colleague Yishai Schwartz has written, the state's laws make it unusually difficult to convict a police officer who claims that he fired in self-defense. But the difficulty of the case is precisely why McCulloch shouldn’t be the one presenting it. It needs a prosecutor whose intentions and motives are not in doubt. Otherwise, people will assume a decision not to indict reflects lack of prosecutorial effort, rather than the facts of the case.

McCulloch has said that he will step aside if Nixon asks him to do so. Nixon (whose own motives are open to question) has declined to take that step, arguing that it would exceed his authority. It’s not clear exactly how far the governor’s power extends in cases like these. I’ve read and heard different accounts about what Missouri law allows. But nobody questions that McCulloch can decide to recuse himself, clearing the way for Nixon to name a special prosecutor.

McCulloch should seize the opportunity. It would demonstrate that he has the integrity some think he lacks. It would also make a just outcome more likely.