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With Darren Wilson in hiding, other criminal cases in legal limbo

Before officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, he was a witness for 10 criminal cases. Now in hiding, those cases have been placed in legal limbo.
Demonstrators sit in the street after police prevented them from gaining access to Interstate Highway 70 during a protest on Sept. 10, 2014 near Ferguson, Mo.
Demonstrators sit in the street after police prevented them from gaining access to Interstate Highway 70 during a protest on Sept. 10, 2014 near Ferguson, Mo.

As many as 10 criminal cases in which Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson is a witness have been thrown in limbo as Wilson remains in hiding following the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown.

On Monday, Wilson missed a preliminary hearing for a 2013 felony drug case. The case involved a 28-year-old Christopher Brooks, who earlier alleged through his lawyer that he was “roughed up” during the arrest. St. Louis County prosecutors last month asked that the case be sent to a grand jury after they realized that Wilson’s testimony was central to the trial. 

Ed Magee, the spokesman for the St. Louis County prosecutor, told msnbc that the case was originally transferred to the grand jury on Sept. 6 and that it had nothing to do with Wilson’s failure to appear on Monday. Magee said that following the Brown shooting, all cases in which Wilson was a main witness had been placed on hold and that Brooks' case somehow “slipped through the cracks” and wasn't flagged at the time.

During Monday's court hearing a prosecutor told St. Louis County Associate Circuit Judge Mary Bruntrager Schroder that in Wilson's absence the case would instead be taken in front of a grand jury and that it would be presented as early as Wednesday.

News began to spread Monday that the case involving Brooks and Darren Wilson might be sent to a grand jury, and questions arose as to whether or not the same grand jury currently hearing evidence in the Brown case would also be hearing evidence in Brooks’ case.

Magee said the prosecutor’s office decided shortly after the hearing to add the case to the hold pile along with the several other cases in which Wilson was involved, rather than pass it on to the grand jury as requested earlier in court.

“This one sort of slipped through the cracks and it was sent to the grand jury because the [prosecutor] thought they could make the case with the other officers who were at the scene but realized that they can’t,” Magee said. “We decided to put it on the hold pile. We have to wait to see what the grand jury does on the Michael Brown case because obviously that could affect [Wilson’s] credibility.”

Magee said the move is part of the “normal process when there’s an investigation ongoing.” Wilson is the key witness in six cases and a secondary witness in four others, he added.

A grand jury has been hearing evidence for weeks in the Brown case, in which police say Wilson shot and killed the unarmed teen after Brown reached for the officer’s weapon during a struggle. But a half-dozen witnesses refute those claims and say that Wilson shot at Brown as he attempted to flee and that the fatal shots came as Brown attempted to surrender with his hands up.

The killing of Brown, who was black, by Wilson, who is white, has set off more than a month of protests and occasional violent clashes with police.

Officer Wilson, a six-year veteran of the Ferguson Police Department, received a commendation for his role in Brooks’ arrest.

According to a police report, first obtained by Yahoo News, Wilson encountered Brooks and another man allegedly bagging up marijuana for sale while sitting in a car parked in Brooks’ grandmother’s driveway. When the officer approached, Brooks hopped out of the car and refused to hand over the keys so that Wilson could search it. 

“Brooks slapped my hand away,” Wilson wrote in the report. “Brooks was consistently yelling for his cousin, who was now on the front porch, to help him and asking him to ‘get me.’”

An alleged physical encounter then ensued and Brooks’ grew “increasingly hostile.” Wilson said that he called for backup before gaining control. In the report, Wilson wrote that he didn’t use his weapon and relied only on “hand control and the positioning of my body weight.” Weeks after the killing of Brown, Brooks’ attorney Nick Zotos told Yahoo News that Wilson forcibly took Brooks’ keys after Brooks refused to consent to a search of his vehicle. After Brooks and the other man were subdued and placed in Wilson’s police car, the officer reportedly got into Brooks’ vehicle, where he said he found marijuana and a handful of pills. 

Officer Wilson later received a commendation at Ferguson City Hall for his role in the arrest.

In an interview with MSNBC on Monday, Zotos declined to speak as openly about the nature of the circumstances surrounding Brooks’ arrest.

“He made an arrest and seized some marijuana. Two guys are arrested. The physical nature of the arrest is kind of secondary to my issues,” Zotos said. “It’s more of an interest to whatever picture people want to paint of Wilson. The police report written by Wilson suggests there was a physical altercation, that the arrest was physical in nature. That’s what he writes … I’m not contending anything. I’m representing my client. My client believes that Wilson’s conduct was inappropriate.”

Zotos said that he was against the case being sent to a grand jury because, in doing so, Wilson’s testimony would be secret and he would not have to testify under oath.

“I’d rather see the officer show up and be shown and asked questions under oath and be cross-examined,” Zotos said.

Wilson has been in hiding since the shooting, though it has been reported that he has since testified before the grand jury hearing Brown’s case. St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch originally estimated that the grand jury would return a decision on whether or not to indict Wilson in Brown’s death by mid-October. But in a move that has outraged some Brown supporters, McCulloch extended the jury’s service until Jan. 7, saying that he wanted to give jurors ample time to consider the mountain of evidence they are being presented.

Protesters have called for the McCulloch to step down and for a special prosecutor to be appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon. They say McCulloch’s ability to be fair and objective in prosecuting a police officer is in question because of his close ties to law enforcement, including family members who have been officers or lawyers aligned with them. His father was a police officer who was on duty when he was shot and killed by a black suspect.

Protesters have demanded the prosecutor's ouster at city council meetings, marched outside of his office in nearby Clayton and even attempted to shutdown a highway in protest to his refusal to recuse himself. 

Critics also say that McCulloch is not aggressively pursuing charges in the case and that it’s manifesting in the manner in which his office is presenting evidence to the grand jury. Typically a prosecutor will offer jurors a set of recommended charges. In this case, McCulloch has declined to do so. Instead, the grand jury is being presented with all the evidence in pieces and as the prosecutor’s office receives it, rather than waiting for the county and federal probes to be completed, as is common practice.

Some, including a law professor and attorneys for the family, contend the odd move is calculated, a way to create “cover” in case the grand jury decides not to indict Wilson in the racially-charged, controversial shooting.

Magee said prosecutors are still in the process of presenting evidence to the grand jury and that they are meeting several times a week. He said there should be no concern that the grand jury currently seated and hearing the Brown case will also be juggling other cases connected to Wilson or otherwise.

“The grand jury that is hearing the Brown-Wilson case, that’s the only thing they are hearing,” he said.