Signing for Ferguson

Posted: August 26, 2014

I DON'T LIVE in Ferguson, Mo., but I signed the national petition for Gov. Jay Nixon to name a special prosecutor to present evidence to the grand jury in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18. My online signature was No. 79,198.

Grand juries favor the prosecution, and lawyers joke - although it's not a joke - that grand juries will indict a ham sandwich. It is Officer Darren Wilson who stands to be indicted.

St. Louis County lead prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who will supervise the case against Wilson, said he will not step aside, but would not object to the governor appointing a special prosecutor. Nixon has declined to do so. Both are Democrats.

First, the legal consequences, followed by the political machinations.

Missouri state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, who sponsored the petition, notes that police departments employ several McCulloch family members and that the prosecutor's father, an on-duty cop, was killed by an African-American when McCulloch was 12.

That was a life-changing trauma, perhaps leaving an indelible if invisible scar on his psyche. Maybe he is big enough to understand that the murder was an act of an individual, not of a race. Maybe, maybe not. The NAACP says it is "impossible" for McCulloch to be impartial. Maybe, maybe not.

On Stef Renee's Friday-morning "Mojo" show, on WURD, Nasheed cited a case in 2000 that McCulloch declined to prosecute. Two unarmed African-Americans in a car were gunned down in a parking lot, with cops claiming that the suspects were driving toward them. An independent investigation determined that the officers had lied.

Every prosecutor works closely with police and can't help leaning in their direction. That's understandable, especially since cops are often prosecution witnesses. Swallowing every word cops tell you is not understandable, and not acceptable.

The object of a prosecution should not be a conviction, it should be justice. Both sides need to remember that.

It's undeniable that some cops are liars. In 2012, Philly D.A. Seth Williams told Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey that six of his narcotics officers had lost their credibility and would not be called to testify. It must hurt to be identified as a bigger liar than Jon Lovitz's Tommy Flanagan character. Yeah, that's the ticket.

Now I listen to McCulloch's inner core and this is what I hear: If I recuse myself from this case because it is a black victim and a white defendant, I am admitting to at least a soft bigotry that could harm my career as a prosecutor. I'd rather be like Mike, just do it, and let the black community and others howl.

Now I eavesdrop on the governor: If I appoint a special prosecutor and Wilson is found not guilty, I've got a riot on my hands. If he's found guilty, I get white backlash. Maybe this creates more calls for special prosecutors. It's a local matter. I'll be like Pontius Pilate and wash my hands of it.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the African-American community has a fear of the police.

First I ask: Is the fear justified?

If so, bad police conduct must be fixed, and that's what governmental, civil- and human-rights organizations work on.

If the fear is not justified, you help correct that perception by acting in such a fair and unbiased way that the outcome can't be challenged by reasonable people.

The justice system is imperfect. We can't make it perfect, but we can make it as impartial as humanly possible.

Fair or not, perception is reality, McCulloch is suspect, the case is a powder keg and Ferguson's had enough emotional anguish.

That's why the governor should appoint a special prosecutor, and that's why I signed the petition. You can find it at moveon.org.


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

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