Though many observers suspect that St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch may be pleased with the fact that a St. Louis grand jury failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, the hostile reaction to McCulloch’s speech yesterday at Saint Louis University by many of the attendees shows that wherever the prosecutor goes from now on, the specter of Michael Brown will follow.
It will be his legacy, the dependent clause that follows him for the rest of his career—the prosecutor who failed to convince a grand jury to indict Darren Wilson. And that’s as it should be.
McCulloch took the occasion of his appearance at an academic symposium on policing at the Saint Louis University law school to vigorously defend his handling of the Wilson grand jury—though according to the Associated Press he prefaced his remarks by pointing out “there’s always room for improvement, whatever job you do.”
It was one of his first public appearances since his announcement of the grand jury decision in November set off weeks of angry protests. McCulloch’s entire speech was disrupted by protesters attempting to talk over him, standing up and chanting, holding up signs, and loudly accusing him of misconduct, according to the AP.
The school’s president, Fred Pestello, at one point asked campus police to escort several protesters from the room while McCulloch tried to continue. A lecture organizer banged a gavel to restore order, but it didn’t work.
In addition, outside the law school demonstrators blocked the street, but no arrests were reported.
As he continued to be interrupted, McCulloch said, “I’m always amazed at those who profess that they’re exercising their rights to free speech but never allow anyone else to exercise that right.”
McCulloch’s appearance was controversial from the start, as a group of professors and students, including some members of the university’s Black Law Students Association, asked the law school dean, former Missouri state Supreme Court chief justice Michael Wolff, to withdraw the invitation. But Wolff refused, according to the AP, citing the importance of academic freedom at the 197-year-old Catholic university.
“Our role as a law school calls … for our community to come together for a civil discussion of discordant viewpoints on the critical issues we face,” he said. “And our Jesuit mission calls us to promote free, active and original inquiry, and to promote justice in the spirit of the Gospel.”
Ten audience members stood up and started singing “justice for Mike Brown,” asking “Which side are you on?” and chanting “Black lives matter!” as they were led away by police.
“I’m pretty sure all lives matter,” the prosecutor said in response. As reported by the AP, there was a smattering of applause.
Missouri’s attorney general, Chris Koster, filed papers to prevent a grand juror from talking publicly about the inadequacy of the presentation McCulloch made to the grand jury that was considering the shooting death of Michael Brown. Since the grand jury decision, a member of the grand jury filed a lawsuit through the ACLU on Jan. 5 to be allowed to publicly discuss the case, claiming that McCulloch was wrong when he implied all 12 jurors didn’t think there was enough evidence to charge Wilson.
The case could have enormous implications for African-Americans because the secrecy of the grand jury process is what the system relies on to protect police in cop killings. If prosecutors know that grand juries are free to talk about the proceedings, they likely will behave differently in the presentation of cases.
Because the grand jury members are subject to a lifetime gag order, McCulloch essentially was free to characterize the deliberations of the Darren Wilson grand jury in any way he saw fit—and in a way that presented him in a more positive light than perhaps he deserved.
McCulloch and two assistants are also facing a disciplinary complaint alleging that they provided grand jurors with improper instructions on the legal standards for use of force by police.
During his presentation yesterday, McCulloch expressed his concerns about the push to use special prosecutors in police shootings, according to the AP.