St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch expressed confidence Friday in the grand jury currently weighing whether a Ferguson, Missouri police officer should be charged in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown Jr. McCulloch praised the “noble experiment in self-government” that is America’s jury system.
“Many people have voiced very strong opinions about the action or inaction of Michael Brown and the guilt or innocence of Darren Wilson,” McCulloch said in a lengthy statement, his second in as many days addressing the role and responsibilities of the grand jury. “All have done so without the benefit of examining all of the evidence and hearing all of the testimony.”
Though discussion around the case is encouraged, McCulloch said “we cannot prejudge the case based upon media accounts and bits of information.”
“We must wait until all of the evidence is presented to and examined by the grand jury,” he added. “The purpose of the criminal justice system is to search for justice but before one can determine what is just, one must first determine what is true. …At this stage the grand jury is engaged in that search for the truth.”
The grand jury is expected to deliver a decision by mid-November. A recent spate of leaks to media regarding alleged grand jury testimony, and sealed documents including Brown’s official autopsy, have added to a cloud of suspicion among critics around McCulloch’s general handling of the grand jury. Some supporters of Brown believe the leaks, which mostly seem to bolster Officer Wilson’s narrative that he shot Brown after a struggle for Wilson’s gun, are being strategically released to pave the way for a non-indictment.
On Thursday McCulloch addressed those leaks, denying that the grand jury was the source, saying that as “exasperated” as he is with the piecemeal release of information and documents, no information or evidence has been released by the grand jury or anyone associated with it.
“Whoever is releasing this information is doing great disservice to the grand jury process,” McCulloch said in a statement Thursday.
Attorney General Eric Holder has also expressed his discontent with the leaks, describing them as an attempt to shape public opinion around the case. “I’ve said I’m exasperated,” Holder said earlier this week. “That’s a nice way of saying I’m mad, because that’s just not how things should be done.”
As many residents and legal experts believe an indictment of Officer Wilson does not seem likely, a major shakeup of the Ferguson police department may be imminent, as reporting by msnbc this week revealed backdoor plans being hashed out between local, state and federal officials.
Holder alluded to as much during a forum in Washington on Wednesday, when he said the need for “wholesale change” in the department seemed clear and appropriate.
The Justice Department has launched a parallel investigation into Brown’s death to determine whether the teen’s civil rights were violated. The department also launched a so-called pattern and practice investigation into the Ferguson police department to determine the veracity of allegations of wide spread racially biased policing made by many residents.
Late Friday afternoon the Washington Post reported that officials have all but concluded their civil rights investigation into the killing and that federal charges against Officer Wilson were unlikely.
A spokesman for the Justice Department quoted in the Washington Post’s piece called the report “irresponsible” and based on “idle speculation.”
Nonetheless, the threshold for civil rights charges is extremely high and often such investigations can take several months or years.
The department launched a similar investigation into the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen who was shot and killed by a Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida. That investigation continues despite a jury last year clearing Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, of murder charges in the teen’s death.
Ed Magee, a spokesman for McCulloch’s office, said Friday’s statements were released for no other reason than to “clear up issues that have been hanging out there.”
From the outset of the case there has been some misinformation circulating about the grand jury, including that McCulloch hand-picked the jurors. The jury, consisting of seven men and five women, including nine whites and three blacks, were chosen by a St. Louis county circuit judge long before Brown’s Aug. 9 killing from a pool of more than 750,000 residents from all over the county. McCulloch described the jury as diverse in age, socioeconomic status and residency, and said he played no role in their selection.
Still, McCulloch has been a lightning rod for critics, among the most vociferous of whom are Brown’s supporters who believe McCulloch’s close family ties to law enforcement and weak record on prosecuting white police officers who killed unarmed black men make it impossible for him to prosecute this case fairly. They also point to the fact that decades ago McCulloch’s police officer father was killed on duty by a black gunman. Scores of protesters have marched over the past several months, calling for the arrest and indictment of Officer Wilson, who shot and killed Brown in early August. A half-dozen witnesses have said publicly that Wilson shot at Brown as he attempted to flee from the officer and that the fatal shots were fired as Brown turned to surrender with his hands up.
Police and witnesses have said that following an altercation at Wilson’s police vehicle, Brown fled. Wilson, according to investigators, then gave chase. A government official who spoke with NBC News’ Pete Williams on the condition of anonymity, said the unarmed Brown at some point turned and came back toward Wilson, and that the officer feared for his safety. The official declined to reveal the nature of the evidence.
Protesters have also marched outside McCulloch’s office building and staged demonstrations, including attempting to shut down a highway, calling for Gov. Jay Nixon to remove McCulloch from the case and replace him with a special prosecutor.
State elected officials from both sides of the political aisle have proposed legislation that would require a special prosecutor be appointed whenever there’s a case of a fatal shooting involving a police officer.
McCulloch has come under fire for the manner in which the grand jury has been presented evidence in the case. Normally, homicide cases are heard by a grand jury in a concise manner with a couple of investigators summarizing complex evidence and witness statements. Typically a prosecutor will offer jurors a set of recommended charges. In this case, McCulloch has declined to do so. Instead, the grand jury has been fed every shred of evidence in pieces as the prosecutor’s office receives it, rather than waiting for the county and federal probes to be completed, as is common practice.
Because of the high-profile nature of the case, McCulloch said he opted to let the grand jury hear all of the evidence in the case and allow them to make their own decision regarding what charges if any should be filed against Wilson. “This allows the grand jurors to evaluate all evidence and witnesses in arriving at their decision,” McCulloch said in Friday’s statement. “The grand jury is still hearing evidence in this case. When the presentation of evidence is concluded the jury will begin deliberations and then vote whether to indict Darren Wilson.”
Per Missouri law, an indictment requires that nine of the 12 jurors agree.
Some legal experts have suggested that McCulloch could be using the grand jury as cover, as he could have pressed charges against Wilson without a grand jury’s decision. Susan W. McGraugh, a criminal defense lawyer and professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law, told The Washington Post that McCulloch “may want cover, which they can get by sharing the responsibility with the grand jury.”
Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Brown’s family, told msnbc last month that McCulloch is using the grand jury as a “smokescreen.”
“There’s enough probable cause that exists to indict the officer now,” Crump said. “We don’t need this grand jury.”
Magee, the prosecutor’s spokesman, told msnbc Friday that all homicide cases in St. Louis County go before the grand jury.
McCulloch’s latest statement was part civics lesson, part public service announcement on the sanctity of the grand jury determining the fate of a case as controversial as there’s ever been in St. Louis County.
The prosecutor called the jury system “one of the hallmarks of the American criminal justice system” and said that as a democracy, “we often call upon our fellow citizens to volunteer their time to conduct the necessary business of the people.”
“Let us not forget that 12 of our fellow citizens sit as grand jurors hearing evidence about Michael Brown’s death,” McCulloch said. “I am confident that they will arrive at a true and just decision that bears no sign of passion or prejudice.”