St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch speaks during a news conference, April 15, 2014, in Clayton, Mo.
Jeff Roberson/AP

St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s perception problem

Updated

FERGUSON, Missouri – Facing questions about his ability to fairly prosecute the police officer who killed Michael Brown, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch is finding some unlikely defenders in the people he regularly fights in court. Even so, his bigger problem may be one of perception.

If it’s McCulloch’s job to throw people in jail, then it’s Art Margulis’s job to keep them out. A longtime defense attorney in St. Louis, Margulis had nothing but positive things to say about the prosecutor he’s sparred with for decades.

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“I’ve known Bob for years. I’ve tried cases against him, I’ve plea bargained against him, I’ve had years and years against him, and I know all the arguments against him,” Margulis told msnbc. “I think they’re totally unfounded.”

The protesters who have taken over the streets of Ferguson for almost two weeks are calling on McCulloch to recuse himself from the case, alleging he’s biased by his close family ties to law enforcement. His father, mother, brother, uncle and cousin all worked for the St. Louis police department, and his father was shot and killed by a black man in the line of duty.

Early in his career, McCulloch told The St. Louis Dispatch, “I couldn’t become a policeman, so being county prosecutor is the next best thing.” 

But Margulis, whom a lawyer at another firm dubbed “the godfather of criminal defense in this town,” has no patience for the criticism. “He’s outstanding. He’s an outstanding person, he’s an outstanding prosecutor. He’s totally honest,” Margulis told msnbc.

Gregory Smith, another St. Louis criminal defense attorney, said the sentiment is common among his colleagues. “You’re not going to get any complaints with us,” he said. “Bob has been very fair to me. I think they operate very professionally.”

Thursday night, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that he’s not taking McCulloch off the case.

While they are opponents in trial, prosecutors and defense attorneys must also work closely together, so there’s some incentive to maintain friendly relations.

Scott Rosenblum, another prominent defense attorney in St. Louis who has argued “way over 1,000” cases against McCulloch’s office, said he trusts the prosecutor to be fair and and impartial. Still, he acknowledged that even if McCulloch does everything inside the privacy of a grand jury proceedings, he could still have a problem.

“I think he’ll call it the way the evidence goes,” Rosenblum said. “But the main problem that can come is after a complete investigation if it’s determined that this officer was justified. I think his delivering that news could be more difficult for that community than somebody that that community believes may be less biased.”

“That’s perception, you can’t change that,” he added.

Darren Wilson, Ferguson, Michael Brown and Missouri

St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch's perception problem

Updated