© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

McCulloch faces protesters in first appearance since Ferguson grand jury decision

St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch delivers a keynote address at a Saint Louis University law school  symposium on policing after Ferguson on February 20, 2015.
Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio

In a speech interrupted three times by protesters, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch gave a full-throated defense Friday of the way his office handled the case of former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. 

McCulloch gave his speech at Saint Louis University School of Law's summit on policing after Ferguson. It was the first time he had appeared in public since the grand jury's decision in November not to charge Wilson with the death of Michael Brown.

"If you're not learning from what went on, then you're probably not doing what you should be doing," McCulloch said. "It doesn't mean that every time something occurs that you change course."

While acknowledging that the grand jury process for Wilson was unusual, McCulloch stressed that it was not unique.

"I defy you to find a case that was handled as openly, and with as much information and evidence that’s out there," he said. "You may not like the evidence, you may pick it apart, but it’s right there in front of you."

Protesters who have been active since Brown's death were unimpressed. Stefan Bradley, the director of African-American studies at SLU, said McCulloch refused to answer directly many of the questions he was asked.

"Everybody celebrates the fact that you're coming to a university to search for truth, and that's certainly what we want to do," he said. "But I'm not sure that any more truth was told today than what we've known in the past."

Bradley said he was not surprised that McCulloch defended his actions, but that he was disappointed.

In his opening remarks, SLU Law dean Mike Wolff quoted extensively from an opinion written by a black federal judge in Mississippi as he sentenced three white men for the 2011 death of a black man.

"Today we take another step away from Mississippi's tortured past ... we move farther away from the abyss. Indeed, Mississippi is a place and a state of mind. And those who think they know about her people and her past will also understand that her story has not been completely written. Mississippi has a present and a future. That present and future has promise. As demonstrated by the work of the officers within these state and federal agencies — black and white, male and female, in this Mississippi they work together to advance the rule of law. Having learned from Mississippi's inglorious past, these officials know that in advancing the rule of law, the criminal justice system must operate without regard to race, creed or color."

"We in Missouri face a similar challenge," Wolff said. "Our community depends on law enforcement -- black and white, men and women -- who devote their lives to serving and protecting all of us under the rule of law. The communities they serve -- all of us -- have shared expectations about the boundaries of law enforcement."

McCulloch said the Wilson grand jury and its aftermath taught him that he needed to get out in public more to explain the legal system. But he was not fond of the efforts by the Missouri legislature to address some of the concerns that came up, saying many were done for personal promotion.

He was dismissive of one proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate the grand jury system entirely.

"The sponsor [Democrat Brandon Ellington of Kansas City]  actually said, 'why are we using this antiquated system anyway?'" McCulloch said. "What I'm sure he didn't realize is that he's a member of the legislature, which is an even more antiquated system than the grand jury."

In addition to putting McCulloch "on trial," protesters also sang the protest anthem "Whose Side Are You On," and held up signs with the names of black men and women killed by St. Louis-area police. 

McCulloch spoke right over the protesters, who were eventually asked to leave by police. No one was arrested.

A question-and-answer session brought sharp inquires from law school faculty and students about the way McCulloch conducted the grand jury process.  Many wanted to know if McCulloch had failed in his duty as prosecutor to present the strongest case on behalf of the state. 

SLU Law professor Jesse Goldner questions St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch.
Credit (Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)
SLU Law professor Jesse Goldner questions St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch.

McCulloch said he had no problem with the way that Darren Wilson was questioned when the former officer appeared before the grand jury. Every lawyer handles every witness differently depending on the case, he said, and that's especially true when the target of a criminal investigation speaks to the grand jury.

"When we get a guy in front of the grand jury, the tendency is to let them talk," McCulloch said. They've been told, 'look, anything at all, you tell them, hang on, let me talk to my lawyer,' and they're out of there. We want to keep people in the grand jury room."

McCulloch is facing a state ethics complaint echoing many of the allegations levied at the SLU forum. The status of that complaint is unknown. 

McCulloch was not the only speaker to blast the fragmented nature of policing and governance in St. Louis. St. Louis County chief Jon Belmar, who was also a panelist, came down harshly on small departments who use traffic tickets as an ATM

"If you think that taxation of our citizens through traffic enforcement in St. Louis County is bad, you have no idea how bad it is," he said. "It decreases our legitimacy in law enforcement when they think the only that the only thing police officers are out there for is to write tickets and bring it back to their city coffers. It is immoral."

Belmar said he supports an effort by state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, to reduce the percentage of revenue cities can keep from traffic tickets and fines.

The grand jury announcement

McCulloch also provided the first detailed account of the planning behind the announcement of the grand jury's decision.

The prosecutor's office was in contact with police departments and the Unified Command, he said, but coordination was difficult because it wasn't clear exactly when the jury was prepared to make a decision. It appeared at first that the members might decide on Friday, Nov. 20, after their final witness. If that had been the case, the announcement would have come on Sunday morning, Nov. 23.

But when it became apparent that the 12 members would need more time, law enforcement began looking at a Monday night announcement, after schools and businesses closed. The office also needed time to prepare logistically for making a speech that was broadcast live nationwide.

McCulloch said his office never considered waiting a day or two to release the grand jury findings.

"Everybody was geared up and ready for what was going to happen," he said. "I didn't think that it could wait overnight until Tuesday, regardless of when they came back."

What happened was a violent night that led to the torching of dozens of businesses in Ferguson and neighboring Dellwood.

Taking the protest outside

After their disruption of McCulloch’s speech, protesters moved their demonstration outside. But some were pleasantly surprised by how long their singing of a requiem for Michael Brown was tolerated during the presentation.

Protesters with STL Students in Solidarity, Tribe X and Artivists hold up a sign parodying the name of the SLU Law School symposium where St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch was speaking, as well as "tombstone" signs of people killed in recent polic
Credit Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
Protesters with STL Students in Solidarity, Tribe X and Artivists hold up a sign parodying the name of the SLU Law School symposium where St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch was speaking, as well as "tombstone" signs of people killed in recent police shootings. Sgt. Michael Marks of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (right) said the police-protest interaction went "great."

“Fortunately, we’re working with an administration that senses the sensibilities of the community,” said protester Jonathan Pulphus of the organization Tribe X. “They were very lenient toward our actions at first. After a while, they put us out.”

But other protesters said that tolerance highlighted inequities.

“It was about 20 students inside that actually created the disruption. It speaks to the discrepancy in the way different parts of our St. Louis community are treated, that we as students were gently escorted out while others who have called for justice in the movement have not been treated near as respectfully,” said Reuben Riggs, a member of the protest group STL Students in Solidarity.

After being removed, the couple dozen protesters, including some from the group Artivist, gathered outside the law school to continue to contest McCulloch’s role on the panel and to protest against several recent police shooting deaths. They sang, unfurled banners, including one that read “Policing Post-Ferguson: Modern-Day Lynching,” and chanted “Black lives matter” along with other common Ferguson protest refrains.

But for as familiar as those chants have been in previous Ferguson-related protests, there was a slight change in the language some protesters used. Pulphus said while the protesters wanted to hold McCulloch accountable for perceived biases in handling the Michael Brown case and others, he acknowledged McCulloch’s attempt to talk to the public about it.

“While with humility he admitted it - that we're still dealing with the issues of Ferguson - understand it's not just Ferguson,” Pulphus said. “It would be disingenuous to isolate it. This is a problem of St. Louis and the nation.”

Protesters briefly blocked traffic on Tucker Boulevard outside SLU Law School to demonstrate against St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch's appearance at a policing conference there.
Credit Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
Protesters briefly blocked traffic on Tucker Boulevard outside SLU Law School to demonstrate against St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch's appearance at a policing conference there.

Another slight change came in the form of the protest itself. The group blocked traffic along Tucker Boulevard, prompting some drivers to honk their horns. But protesters didn’t seem to object when a couple of police officers helped a few stuck cars through the protest line. After only about 15 minutes of demonstration, the protesters dispersed themselves, calling the action a “definite success.”

“It made clear that people want to hold McCulloch accountable,” Riggs said, also calling for the prosecutor to resign. “Instead, the fight for justice continues even though people like McCulloch continue to thwart it.”

Sgt. Michael Marks of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police said he was pleased with the way police and protesters interacted. Unlike in many previous protests, no one was arrested or injured. “I thought it was textbook,” he said. “We gave you your ten, fifteen minutes to get your message across and then we were able to step in, open up the streets, and allow the free flow of traffic. I thought it was great.”

But some tensions remained. One demonstrator not affiliated with the organized protest accused officers outside SLU Law School of being racist and sexist. In response, Sgt. Brian Rossomanno said: “There is some honor in peaceful protest and you don’t have it.”

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Follow Stephanie Lecci on Twitter: @stephlecci 

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Kae Petrin covers public transportation and housing as a digital reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.