St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch was helping Councilman Steve Stenger in his bid for county executive from literally the moment he started running.
McCulloch was the introductory speaker at the Affton Democrat’s campaign kickoff last year. He's contributed close to $100,000 in in-kind contributions to Stenger's campaign. And he's appeared in ads attacking incumbent St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and praising Stenger’s promise to “clean up” St. Louis County.
McCulloch’s gravitas gave Stenger a significant leg up in winning August’s primary. But since Michael Brown’s shooting death, several political figures – including Dooley and state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City – are speculating that McCulloch may help Stenger again, this time in his race against Republican Rick Stream.
The two voiced concerns about whether the announcement of the grand jury's decision on whether to indict Officer Darren Wilson may be strategically timed to assist Stenger. Dooley said on Tuesday he has “no confidence in Mr. McCulloch’s judgment period.” And Chappelle-Nadal wondered aloud about a determination being made “by the grand jury prior to the election and Bob McCulloch or whoever else decides not to release this information until after the election.”
“This not about party. When it comes to Ferguson, I couldn't care less if you’re Democrat or Republican or Green Party,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “I don’t care. It’s about humanity. And it’s about restructuring and rebuilding faith and trust among people who have been wounded for a very long time. If politics gets into the timing, this community – the greater community – is going to very upset about that.”
Neither Chappelle-Nadal nor Dooley are particularly close with McCulloch. And Chappelle-Nadal’s Tweet that the grand jury may be finished with deliberations was strenuously denied by McCulloch’s office. But McCulloch’s statements about when the grand jury may render its decision prompted speculation – especially the possibility that a decision not to indict Wilson may be delay until after the election to help Stenger.
For his part McCulloch strenuously denied that he would delay the announcement of the grand jury's decision during an appearance Wednesday on St. Louis on the Air.
"It is unusual because instead of the lead investigator coming in and saying ‘here’s what Witness A had to say and here’s what Witness B had to say,'" those witnesses are coming in," McCulloch said. "Because this grand jury’s term ... expired in early September, we’re now working around their schedule. They’ve been very good about it and said ‘listen, we can all get together on this date for this afternoon and evening or this morning.’
McCulloch went on to say that "we’re presenting such voluminous amounts of evidence that it’s going to take some time. Mid-October was an aspirational date two months ago."
"And now that we’re into it and we see how things are going and the amount of evidence and information, then it’s pretty clear now that it’s going to be closer to mid-November," McCulloch said. "Now it may be the first or second week — it may be a little before that. It may be a little after that. We’ll go with that as it occurs."
Soon after McCulloch appeared on St. Louis on the Air, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Washington Post reported that his office was looking into whether a member of the grand jury leaked information to somebody on Twitter. If that occurred, the articles state, then the entire process may have to begin anew.
Is it possible?
If McCulloch was trying to time the indictment announcement after the election — which, again, he's forcefully denied -- it may be more likely he'd do so by presenting lots and lots of evidence, not by concealing the grand jury's decision.
But is that even possible? Two law professors — Saint Louis University’s Susan McGraugh and Washington University’s Peter Joy — both told St. Louis Public Radio that nothing in law stops McCulloch from delaying the public announcement of the indictment decision.
“Under the grand jury system, it’s possible for the grand jury to make a decision but to hold the results until a later date,” McGraugh said. “And that happens fairly often in big drug cases. And those are called sealed indictments. It’s where the indictments are filed, but it’s sealed until a later date. And that’s usually until the person who’s been indicted is arrested. And in situations like that, they don’t want the person to know there’s an indictment before they’re in custody.”
McGraugh said Wilson's situation is different, which would make a delayed announcement unusual. But she added that the way this particularly grand jury is being conducted is decidedly unusual.
“There’s a lot of people who would say politics of course plays a role in who gets charged and who doesn’t,” said McGaugh, speaking anecdotally. “Do I know if that’s what Bob McCulloch’s doing? No. I am curious to why the timeline keeps changing, I guess. To ask for a continuance until January, then to say November, then to say October and back to November is curious to me. But that could have something to do with the course of the investigation.”
While it’s possible for the grand jury’s decision to be delayed until after the November election, Joy said, “It would be unlikely and unusual.” He said he doubts that the grand jury “would want to come in and take a day out of their week” and “pretend that they’re doing something when they’re not doing anything.”
“We would know when the grand jury quit meeting. I assume, unless proven otherwise, they’re still hearing different pieces of evidence, based on at least what’s been reported in the newspaper as of a week or a week and a half week ago,” Joy said. “There were some witnesses that said they had not testified. I’m assuming it’s operating as it should, absent there being something more than speculation that they’re not operating the way that they should be.”
If the grand jury declines to indict, McCulloch may want a slight delay to prepare to explain the decision, Joy said, adding that the grand jury was seated before Brown was killed, meaning they’re not “a special hand-picked bunch of people.”
“Maybe they’ll finish their job and there may be a day before we hear about it. Maybe two days,” Joy said. “But I’d be really surprised if it would be any longer than a few days. The reason it might be a day or even a few days is we know that Mr. McCulloch indicated he was going to explain whatever the decision was.”
For his part, Stenger said, “I have been in absolutely no communication with Bob McCulloch with regard to anything that’s going on in the grand jury.” But he also expressed strong doubts McCulloch is trying to use the grand jury’s timing to help his election.
“There is a process that’s in place,” Stenger said. “I can tell you, as we all know, a concurrent federal investigation is ongoing on as well. And I would find it highly unlikely that any such thing is going on. The eyes of the world are watching. The eyes of the Justice Department are watching. And I just don’t see that as a possibility.”
Last week, for instance, a reporter from KMOX last week asked Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson whether the protesters were “emotionally prepared” to handle the possibility that Wilson wouldn’t get indicted.
In response, Johnson said: “The mind of the protesters and what they’re prepared for — I don’t know.”
“I know right now we have an angry frustration over a multitude of things,” Johnson said. “But I do know that we’ve been meeting with groups that are groups within the neighborhood — and trying to get that understanding. But I also know that we have a justice system. It’s a justice system that guides our nation and guides us. So we’ll just have to see what that justice system tells us and how they guide us.”
When McCulloch was asked a similar question during his appearance on St. Louis on the Air, he replied: "You’d have to have your head in the sand to think that regardless of what the end result is that there won’t be any demonstrations."
"And again, I encourage demonstrations. But we encourage demonstrations that are done in a nonviolent manner," he said. "People want to express their opinion, they can express it. I’m very confident that whatever the end result of the grand jury, the grand jurors are pouring their hearts and souls into this and will make a decision and determination based on all the evidence."
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.