Justice

If You Want To Understand The Ferguson Prosecution, You Should Know About The Jack In The Box Case

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch

Legal experts have accused Ferguson, MO prosecutor Robert McCulloch of mishandling the grand jury process that failed to yield charges in the August police killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. One of the grand jurors in that case has flagged many of those errors in a new lawsuit against McCulloch. The anonymous juror’s suit also cites another case from nearly 15 years ago which suggests McCulloch has a history of demonizing the victims of police shooting, and skewing the evidence in favor of the police.

While the suit doesn’t delve into the details of the 2000 case, known locally as the Jack in the Box shooting, investigations by federal officials and St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporters reveal familiar-sounding details about McCulloch’s strange use of the grand jury process and inflammatory public statements following the ultimate exoneration of police.

In June of 2000, federal Drug Enforcement Agency officers and local law enforcement conducted a joint drug sting in the parking lot of a busy fast food restaurant in Berkeley, MO. The target was a small-time drug dealer. In a matter of seconds, two officers had fired 21 shots through the target’s windshield, killing both the alleged dealer and his passenger, a personal friend who was not involved in the investigation at all. The officers who killed the two men testified that they shot because the suspect’s car moved forward toward them, something that was later proven false by physical evidence and expert testimony. But in McCulloch’s hands, news reports from the time reveal, the facts of the case took on a particular slant. In both the private grand jury setting and later public statements, McCulloch seriously misrepresented the key facts of the day and the background of one of the two victims.

Here are the four key takeaways about McCulloch’s conduct from that 2000 case, known locally as the Jack in the Box shooting.

1. McCulloch lied to the public about how witnesses testified to the key detail of the day.

McCulloch said that police witnesses unanimously backed the shooters’ story when in fact four officers said that story was wrong and only one agreed with the shooters. “McCulloch insisted in a recent interview that ‘every witness who was out there testified that it made some forward motion,'” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote in a 2002 investigative report accessed through LexisNexis. In fact, far more officers testified against the shooters’ story than in support of it. Just three out of the 13 officers who testified said the car moved forward toward the shooters. “Of the three, two were the shooters themselves,” the Post-Dispatch investigation found, and McCulloch later said the third appeared to be lying. Four of the officers on the scene testified the car had not moved forward, and the remaining law enforcement witnesses were never asked about the car’s movements or said they had not in a position to see them.

2. McCulloch steered the grand jury toward viewing the dead men as hardened criminals, and later referred to them publicly as “bums.”

McCulloch’s team spent the last day of the Jack in the Box grand jury presenting jurors with an exhaustive listing of every time either of the dead men had been arrested, the Post-Dispatch reports. Even if an arrest had produced no actual criminal charge, jurors heard it listed off as evidence of the dead men’s character. Although they were not the ones under investigation by the grand jury, McCulloch spent considerable attention on the two deceased. “These guys were bums,” he said at one press conference. Standing by that comment days later in an interview, he told the Post-Dispatch that “it is important for the public to know that these two and others like them for years have spread destruction in the community dealing crack cocaine and heroin.” Earl Murray, the driver and target of the sting, was allegedly a small-time dealer who routinely borrowed money from friends, rather than some kind of kingpin. Ronald Beasley, the passenger, was a working father of three with one conviction related to drugs and another tied to a stolen credit card.

3. McCulloch failed to secure expert testimony to allow grand jurors to resolve the conflicting stories officers testified to in private.

Despite having four witnesses who contradicted the shooters’ statement and only one witness other than the shooters who supported their claims, McCulloch failed to provide grand jurors with any way of determining which of those two conflicting stories was correct. According to the Post-Dispatch, “Prosecutors never brought independent evidence before the grand jury to sort out who was right.” A subsequent federal investigation did seek expert analysis of the crash and the scene of the shooting. The veteran law enforcement officer and collisions expert who conducted that analysis concluded with “one hundred percent” certainty that the car could not have been moving forward toward the officers when they shot the unarmed men. The federal investigation still produced no charges despite that finding, however. One investigator explained that despite the “troubling” evidence about the car’s movement, the legal standards for a federal civil rights charge meant that new information McCulloch had failed to gather was not enough to secure a federal indictment.

4. McCulloch jumped in to stop a cop mid-testimony when he started to compare the incident to “a notorious police shooting of an unarmed man in New York.”

The county police department’s armorer at the time was testifying before the grand jury about how police are trained to make snap judgments about deadly force. But the Post-Dispatch found that when that Officer James Shoemaker began to compare the Jack in the Box shooting to a New York Police Department killing of an unarmed black man — presumably the Amadou Diallo shooting in 1999, given the timing — the prosecutor interrupted him and changed the subject. “That’s not what we’re asking today,” the prosecutor told Shoemaker. There was a similar strange interruption in the testimony of one of the shooters, who was in the middle of describing how the car had been moving toward him when the prosecutor stopped his testimony and asked him to return 13 days later. “When Pietukowski returned,” the paper reports, “his testimony seemed less sure.”

Other pieces of the story also echo Ferguson. McCulloch flooded the grand jury with witnesses rather than presenting a tightly organized narrative of the day’s events as prosecutors typically do in grand juries where they are actually seeking a charge. Protests followed the Jack in the Box shootings, though they never turned into violent unrest or clashes with police as the rallies in Ferguson did this past summer and fall. McCulloch repeatedly chided the protesters and labeled their leaders “phonies and frauds” in public statements.

But unlike the Wilson case, where police published a report portraying the shooting as justified and Michael Brown as a criminal before the grand jury had even convened, back in 2000 McCulloch took the opposite tack with regard to transparency. He refused to even reveal the shooters’ names to the public or even confirm that they were white men until more than a year after the killings, when a federal investigation had been completed. And because the grand jury proceedings were only recorded on tape and not transcribed in real time by a stenographer, a further seven months would pass before the St. Louis Post-Dispatch could complete a thorough review of McCulloch’s conduct.

Once that investigation was completed, the paper’s conclusion was definite. In an editorial noting that the prosecutor still failed to grasp key details from the day nearly two years after the killings, the newspaper’s leaders condemned McCulloch’s conduct. “After much prodding, Mr. McCulloch released an unprecedented amount of information about the case,” the editors wrote. “But rather than removing a cloud from the investigation, the additional detail provides a devastating indictment of Mr. McCulloch.”