Gov. Jay Nixon is standing behind the St. Louis County prosecutor, refusing to press for a recusal in any proceedings on the officer who shot Michael Brown.
Robert McCulloch isn’t inclined to return the favor. He harshly criticized the governor’s decision to ask the Highway Patrol to restore calm in Ferguson. And he told a radio station that Nixon needed to “man up” if he wants McCulloch off the case, not just cite protocols of how the process works.
“To denigrate the men and women of the county police department is shameful,” McCulloch told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about Nixon bringing in the Highway Patrol. Those words only bolster concerns about McCulloch’s impartiality. Local police needed to be reined in after they riled unrest among protesters with their heavy use of military gear.
But it’s McCulloch’s family ties that cause most of the questioning. His father, a St. Louis officer, was murdered when McCulloch was a child, shot by a kidnapper. A brother, uncle and cousin were officers, and his mother worked as a clerk for the department. Family connections were raised in 2001 when McCulloch declined to charge two undercover officers who shot and killed two suspected drug dealers, who were later found to be unarmed.
A grand jury will decide whether to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the Brown shooting, but McCulloch plays the key role of presenting evidence likely to clear or indict the officer. His office would handle any subsequent prosecution.
Understandably, McCulloch is offended that his integrity is challenged. He’s been the prosecutor for 23 years. A Democrat, he’s been re-elected, often without facing challengers.
But these are extraordinary circumstances. The greater public good weighs heavy. Trust is tattered, undercut by more than just this police shooting. Every effort to ensure impartiality counts, even addressing mere perceptions.
McCulloch should take the high road, recuse himself and allow a special prosecutor to be appointed. As Nixon noted, “Nothing about this is simple. … Ferguson is a test, a test not just for the people of this community, but for all Americans. And it is a test we must not fail.”
Too many people have already decided whether Officer Wilson was justified, or not, in killing Brown. It’s disturbing that so many supporters of both the officer and the victim are unwilling or unable to critically assess facts as they are revealed.
Missouri doesn’t need any suggestion that the prosecutor could be among the tainted thinkers.