St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch vigorously defended his handling of the Ferguson police shooting during a law school lecture Friday at his alma mater, ignoring protesters who repeatedly disrupted his speech.
Minutes after the lecture at a Saint Louis University academic symposium on policing began, an audience member wearing a judicial robe interrupted to accuse the elected prosecutor of misconduct for his office’s role in the grand jury process that ended with Darren Wilson not being indicted in the August death of Michael Brown. Six other protesters then stood in the packed mock courtroom, chanting and holding signs with the names of other St. Louis area police shooting victims.
Campus police escorted several protesters from the room at the request of school president Fred Pestello. Meanwhile, McCulloch continued giving his speech as people in the crowd kept making comments, their voices often competing with his. One of the lecture’s organizers banged a gavel in an unsuccessful attempt to restore order.
Demonstrators also blocked a downtown street outside the law school during McCulloch’s 50-minute lecture, which was followed by 30 minutes of audience questions. No arrests were reported.
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“I’m always amazed at those who profess that they’re exercising their rights to free speech but never allow anyone else to exercise that right,” McCulloch said in one of his first public appearances since a county grand jury declined in November to indict Wilson, a white officer who has since resigned from the Ferguson police force, in the death of the 18-year-old Brown, who was black and unarmed.
The grand jury decision set off looting and fires that destroyed several businesses in and around Ferguson. The shooting months earlier had already spurred weeks of sometimes violent protests and a national debate over race relations and police use of force.
McCulloch grew more combative after 10 audience members rose from their seats and sang their own version of a civil rights standard in which they demanded “justice for Mike Brown” and asked, “Which side are you on?” They chanted “Black lives matter!” as police led them away.
“I’m pretty sure all lives matter,” the prosecutor said to a smattering of applause.
Professors and students, including some members of the university’s Black Law Students Association, had asked the law school’s dean, former state Supreme Court chief justice Michael Wolff, to rescind the invitation. They cited several legal and ethics challenges to McCulloch’s handling of the case and questioned his credentials to be the keynote presenter at an academic presentation that also featured St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar and social scientists from five other universities, including American, South Carolina and Wake Forest.
Wolff declined to cancel McCulloch’s involvement, citing the importance of academic freedom at the 197-year-old Catholic university.
“Our role as a law school calls … for our community to come together for a civil discussion of discordant viewpoints on the critical issues we face,” he said. “And our Jesuit mission calls us to promote free, active and original inquiry and to promote justice in the spirit of the Gospel.”
McCulloch had previously acknowledged calling witnesses whom he said “clearly lied” to the grand jury, including a woman who claimed to have seen Brown charge at Wilson. McCulloch and two assistants also face a disciplinary complaint alleging that they provided grand jurors with improper instructions on the legal standards for use of force by police.
He said Friday that Missouri’s use-of-force statute is not inconsistent with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a civil case that had been cited by some, including in the ethics complaint against him. He expressed concerns about some post-Ferguson legislative remedies being considered by state lawmakers, including the use of special prosecutors in police shootings.
He joined the chorus of those calling for a reduction in the number of small-town governments and tiny municipal police departments in the county. And he prefaced his remarks by noting that “there’s always room for improvement, whatever job you do.”