The local prosecutor who botched the investigation of the Mike Brown killing in 2014 and was widely criticized for steering Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson out of legal jeopardy no longer has a job, after losing to underdog challenger Wesley Bell in Missouri’s primary Tuesday.
Though their displeasure with county prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s handling of the Wilson investigation was obvious in the streets immediately, St. Louis County voters would have to wait almost four years to show him exactly what they thought of his handling of the case.
Even with an energetic campaign behind the locally-prominent Bell, McCulloch would have been the favorite in any political prognosticator’s forecast. He’d held the job for nearly 30 years going into Tuesday night’s vote, and while black residents might have been energized to send a message four years after “Ferguson” became a household name, political history would suggest that wealthy white suburbanites would stick with the guy they know.
Instead, McCulloch lost in a near-blowout as turnout in the Democratic primary shattered recent highs. Some 190,000 people took the time to cast a Democratic ballot Tuesday, compared to 130,000 in 2014 and just 86,000 in 2016. Less than 5 percent of those who voted county-wide didn’t bother checking a box on the prosecutor’s race, which serves as the de facto general election for that office since no Republican is running in the fall.
Bell won with a final margin of nearly 25,000 votes in a race defined as much by ongoing and quotidian injustices in the county as by the legacy of McCulloch’s ugly role in the chaotic, heated months following Wilson’s killing of Brown. Though McCulloch insisted he hadn’t pursued cash bail for misdemeanors in years, ACLU stat-crunchers proved thousands of people were getting jailed for being poor on his watch. Bell vowed to end the practice for good if elected.
The botched investigation into Wilson’s killing of Brown, a black unarmed teenager, in Ferguson four years ago may not have been the thing people talked about when they knocked doors for Bell’s campaign over the past few months. But it’s surely what made McCulloch’s name ring out nationwide.
The only real reason Darren Wilson didn’t get charged with a crime is that Bob McCulloch didn’t want him to be. Sure, the decision officially got made by a grand jury — but as the law school cliche goes, a prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich if that’s what he wants. Grand juries usually get shown the evidence that a prosecutor believes will guide them to level charges. McCulloch decided to show his grand jury everything, effectively shrugging his shoulders and telling a group of civilians that the local authority on what is and isn’t a crime thinks this one’s up to y’all.
Worse, McCulloch would later say he knowingly put false witnesses on the stand during the grand jury, including one person he knew had not been present at the scene but told the panel that Brown had charged at Wilson “like a football player.”
And when the slow-moving omnishambles of a process that McCulloch had designed eventually spat out the result he’d wanted — no charges for Wilson — he waited to announce the decision in a bizarre and rambling press conference just days before Thanksgiving.
It wasn’t the first time in McCulloch’s career that he’d gone to bat for cops who killed somebody by bumbling a prosecutor’s most basic tasks before a grand jury seemingly designed to fail. In 2000, when he was wrapping up the second of his eight terms in office, McCulloch did almost exactly the same thing with a police killing known locally as the Jack-in-the-Box case.
He won’t get a third chance to rehash the recipe. The next time a police officer kills someone in St. Louis County, they’ll get the circumstances of their decision-making audited more fully. Bell has committed to appointing a special prosecutor to bring outside eyes to any police killing case. And while elected prosecutors have traditionally relied upon law enforcement peers for electoral support, Bell’s arrival atop a populist wave will be a lingering reminder that while he works alongside the county’s police, he works for its civilians.
“People keep saying ‘you shocked the world,’” Bell said in his victory speech late Tuesday. “No, we shocked the world. People showed up and showed out.”