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Missouri governor won't remove controversial prosecutor from Michael Brown case

FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 15: Missouri Governor Jay Nixon speaks to the media
FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 15: Missouri Governor Jay Nixon speaks to the media
Scott Olson

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced Tuesday evening that he won't ask St. Louis County Attorney Robert McCulloch to step down from the prosecution of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

Ferguson, Missouri has been rocked by protests since Wilson shot Brown on the afternoon of August 9. A key demand of the demonstrators is that Wilson be brought to justice. But on top of that, in recent days there have been increasing concerns about McCulloch's impartiality and willingness to vigorously pursue the case — leading to widespread calls for his removal.

Among other things, critics point out that McCulloch decided not to bring charges in a previous case in which police officers killed two unarmed black men,

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley announced on August 15 that he would lead an effort to have McCulloch removed, and more than 51,000 people have now signed an online petition demanding that McCulloch recuse himself and his office from the case.

In an interview with Vox, former prosecutor Alex Little criticized McCulloch's actions thus far, saying that his decision to take the case to a grand jury at this stage could be a "delaying tactic." He also accused McCulloch of having "abdicated his role as an advocate for justice."

But McCulloch appears to have retained the support of Governor Nixon, who released the following statement on the evening of August 19:

"From the outset, I have been clear about the need to have a vigorous prosecution of this case, and that includes minimizing and potential legal uncertainty. I am not asking St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough [sic] to recuse himself from this case. There is a well-established process by which a prosecutor can recuse themselves from a pending investigation, and a special prosecutor be appointed. Departing from this established process could unnecessarily inject legal uncertainty into this matter and potentially jeopardize the prosecution."

It is worth noting that even if McCulloch's office retains control of the case, that does not mean that McCulloch himself will be personally involved in the grand jury presentation — or in any eventual trial.

As the County Prosecutor, McCulloch can be expected to have input into major decisions about the direction of the case, but it is likely that assistant attorneys will be the ones to handle the day to day matters relating to the grand jury and prosecution. Indeed, McCulloch's spokesman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the grand jury proceedings starting on August 20 will be handled "by the attorney regularly assigned to the grand jury. It will not be handled by Mr. McCulloch."

Update: Later the night of the 19th, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster also released a statement supporting McCulloch:

"During a state of emergency, the Governor has the power to suspend any officer or agency of state or local government. It should be noted that Bob McCulloch has been elected by the people of St. Louis County seven times in a row, and he is one of the most experienced prosecutors in our state. It is my understanding he has placed the matter in the hands of two highly experienced prosecutors, one of whom is African-American. I trust in their ability to diligently and fairly present the evidence in this case."

Correction: this article initially referred to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as the St. Louis County Dispatch. That error has been corrected.

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