Bob McCulloch, the grandstanding county prosecutor who lambasted the media even as he staged a nationally televised late-evening event featuring himself, used one of the most historic U.S. institutions – a grand jury – in an unorthodox fashion, making it all but certain the white police officer who shot an unarmed black man would never face trial.
Many legal observers believe that – at a public criminal trial – a jury would have acquitted Darren Wilson given the weight of evidence showing some sort of a fight between Michael Brown, the fullback-sized African-American, and the almost-as-big police officer preceded the shooting and would have buttressed an exculpatory self-defence claim. But there will be no criminal trial, no public trial, no presentation of the evidence and no cross-examination of witnesses or Mr. Wilson who did get to explain his version of events in secret to the grand jury largely because of Mr. McCulloch.
As St. Louis County prosecutor, Mr. McCulloch could have laid charges himself. Instead, he chose to present evidence to an already empanelled grand jury which had been sitting before the shooting in Ferguson, Mo., that attracted international attention last summer. Usually a prosecutor presents only incriminating evidence against a potential criminal suspect, seeking to establish the sufficient cause not to convict but only to warrant the laying of charges.
Instead, Mr. McCulloch – whose impartiality has been questioned – took the unusual step of allowing Mr. Wilson to testify to the grand jury that Mr. Brown was trying to take his gun away and he feared for his life.
"I couldn't become a policeman, so being county prosecutor is the next best thing," Mr. McCulloch, who lost a leg to cancer as a teenager, once told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He's unabashedly proud of coming from a police family. His father, his mother, a brother, an uncle, a nephew and at least one cousin all have worked for the St. Louis police department. And the searingly grave risks of being a police officer shaped his life.
Fifty years ago – in July, 1964 – a fleeing black criminal snatched a police officer's gun away during a struggle and then shot and killed Paul McCulloch, a St. Louis police officer and the future prosecutor's father. He was only 12-years-old.
At least twice since becoming county prosecutor in 1991, Mr. McCulloch has been involved in controversies over what he did – and didn't – present to grand juries in cases involving police officers.
Last summer, after the shooting of Mr. Brown and the ensuing riots, several prominent African-American leaders called for a special prosecutor to replace Mr. McCulloch on the case, claiming the widespread mistrust of the white prosecutor with such close, personal ties to the police community threatened to undermine the process.
More than 70 pastors signed a letter asking Mr. McCulloch to step aside; a petition gathered more than 70,000 signatures. "Nobody thinks Michael Brown can get a fair shake from this guy," Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman and outspoken critic of the prosecutor, told The New York Times. "There is very little faith, especially in the black community, that there would ever be a fair trial."
But Mr. McCulloch wasn't handing over a case involving a black man who – according to the police officer – tried to wrench his gun out of his hands in a struggle.
"I have absolutely no intention of walking away," from the case, Mr. McCulloch said, adding he had been the county's prosecutor for "24 years, and I've done, if I do say so myself, a very good job."
As the grand jury concluded its deliberations and tensions rose again in Ferguson, Mr. McCulloch's office promised the Brown family that they would get the courtesy of a call before the public announcement.
There was no call. Instead, they were among the millions watching Mr. McCulloch reveal the grand jury's decision to the nation on television.
Federal justice department officials and others urged a low-key announcement, preferably in daylight before protesters gathered and with sufficient warning that schools could be closed and security forces deployed to prevent looters from hijacking peaceful demonstrations.
Instead, Mr. McCulloch waited until he could deliver a prime time, countrywide speech detailing why Mr. Wilson would not, and should not, be charged with any crime.
Before he was finished, the flames of bitterness, outrage and criminality were again torching any hopes of reconciliation in Ferguson.